Many people are not familiar with the Haskap berry; rightfully so, as it was only introduced into Canada from Japan and Russia in the 1950’s. Initial experiments with Haskap propagation were not favourable, and it was only after intense development at both the University of Saskatchewan and by a few enthusiastic researchers in Oregon and Washington that Haskap finally revealed its true potential. Haskap is currently known as honeyberry in the USA.
The name Haskap means “berry of long life and good vision” due to its many health benefits, including:
three times the amount of antioxidants as a blueberry (and actually the highest level of anthocyanins of all fruit), giving it the designation of a nutrient-packed superfood;
high potassium levels which are needed in humans to build protein and muscle, metabolize carbohydrates and maintain normal body growth;
the ability to act as an effective inflammation inhibitor; and
the ability to treat chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis and cataracts. Haskap has been researched and found to be beneficial in controlling the development of Type II diabetes as well.
Although Haskap berries look similar to blueberries, they are not part of the same genus or species. Haskap belongs to the species Lonicera caerulea, and within that species, there are dozens of developed varieties that are crosses with others and so on, some of which are terrible tasting (compared to quinine), and many of which have their own unique taste, colour and texture. The taste has been described as tart/sweet and juicy, like a raspberry, and they have tiny edible seeds and powdery blue thin skin.
When the Haskap was first introduced to Canada, it was not palatable. The University of Saskatchewan (U. of SK) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada took the lead role in breeding new varieties of Haskap through their Fruit Program. These varieties are winter cold hardy to -45C, and flowers have been known to survive and set fruit after withstanding -11C temperatures. We have personal experience with Haskap withstanding, in bloom, several nights down to -12C without negative results. Varieties include Tundra, Borealis, Indigo Series—Indigo Gem, Indigo Treat, Indigo Yum; Aurora, Honeybee, Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty and Boreal Beast. The Smart Berry and Berry Blue are used less commonly now, but when the program began, growers were using these almost exclusively as pollenizers.
Bee & Thistle’s initial Haskap plantings consisted of Indigo Gem, Tundra and their pollenizer, Berry Blue. In subsequent years, we’ve added Smart Berry Blue and Aurora to the lineup. All of these varietals were developed by Dr. Bob Bors (in conjunction with Dr. Rick Sawatsky) of the U. of SK Plant Breeding program, and we paid royalties to the University for each plant thus sold. We intend to expand our plantings in the next years with some of the newer varietals as they are developed. Certainly, in 2 short years, we have seen how productive Aurora can be and how it compares favourably with our current program of Indigo Gem and Tundra, both acting as pollenizers and very good producers in their own right, with larger sweeter berries and hardier plants.
Because of the University’s Fruit Program success, Haskap is now grown in Canada and the United States (although the USA has its own program, they are now coordinating extensively with U. of SK). Haskap has been propagated in many eastern Europe countries (particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia), in addition to the originating countries of Japan and Russia. Haskap has been found growing wild in just about every province in Canada, but not as edible species.
Interesting facts of the Haskap include:
the berries grow on bushes that form a globe shape and can grow five to seven feet tall over five to seven years;
the fruit is an oblong, dusty indigo coloured berry about one centimetre diameter and between one and four centimetres long;
they are one of the first fruit crops to set and ripen in the Canadian growing season; harvesting occurs in late June and into early July; and
all varieties of Haskap need a pollenizer, which is just another variety not closely genetically related;
the flowers (also produced in pairs) come out just before the leaves do, and the plants fruit on second-year wood. After flowering, and while the Haskap are developing, new shoots of wood will grow from the existing ones producing fruit the following year.
So what can one do with the Haskap? Wine making is our choice! Once you taste it, you’ll know why. The Haskap is high in phenolics which includes colour and tannins and fairly high in natural sugar, with mainly citric and malic acids giving it a good profile for winemaking. The sensory properties of Haskap will be developed to their potential as the wine is professionally fermented and produced in small batches to retain its unique character profile.
Haskap can also be used in spirits (particularly gin) and liqueurs, juice, jam, chutneys, ice cream, yogurt, dried berries and powdered berry mixes. Haskap also taste very good on cereal, by themselves for fresh eating, and when used as a sauce on meats, particularly venison and pork. Haskap nutraceuticals are also being developed and producers are manufacturing Haskap in powder and even capsule form for health.