Honeyberry

(Lonicera caerula ssp)

Honeyberry fruit
Honeyberry fruit

Cultivars tested

‘Berry Blue’, ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Blue Bird’

Description and site preference

Type and size – bush, variable shapes from low-spreading to 2-5 feet upright
Hardiness zone – 2-7
Exposure – full sun
Soil – all but very wet, pH 5.0 to 7.0
Drainage – moderate to well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 1-2
Maintenance – minimal
Life of planting – 30+ years
Machine harvest potential – high
Suitable markets – processing, local fresh sales

Honeyberry plant
Honeyberry leafed out in mid-April

Notable features

Adaptability – variable (see below)
Pest issues – resistant, but birds and powdery mildew can be problems
Invasive potential – none
Environmental benefits – very early blooming, promotes pollinator build-up for later blooming fruit crops

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high, similar to other bush, shrub and cane fruits
Shared equipment – high, could share most equipment, including mechanical harvester
Shared processing – high, similar to other small fruits
Co-marketing – high, similar value-added products

Integration potential

Very good economic and ecological potential, but must test cultivars for adaptability

History and background

Plants in this group are edible members of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). Haskap is often used as a common name for honeyberry, but technically they represent two distinct subspecies. In general, honeyberry refers to a group of subspecies including kamtshatica, edulis, baczkarnikovae, and, to a lesser degree, altaica. Haskap refers to the specific subspecies emphylocalyx.

Lonicera caerulea is a circumpolar species native to the northern boreal forests in Asia, Europe and North America. Cold hardiness, fruit quality and growth habit is variable among and even within subspecies. Fruit quality can vary from horrible to quite sweet with good fruit size and flavor. Plant shapes can range from vines that need support to upright bushes that lend themselves to mechanical harvesting. All subspecies have good cold hardiness ranging from -30 to -60 degrees F.

Haskap is native to Hokkaida Island in northern Japan and has the least cold hardiness, though it should be hardy to at least Zone 4. It has the best fruit quality in terms of size, flavor and sweetness. As fruit breeding has progressed to select desirable commercial cultivars, hybridization has blurred the distinction among subspecies, and haskap has become a quality standard term more than a subspecies designation. Haskap is promoted by the Haskap Canada grower group to signify superior varieties descended from Japanese germplasm in an attempt to establish a brand that meets quality standards suitable for the Japanese market. The Japanese are very fond of their native haskap and have become major importers of the fruit as their acreage continues to shrink with urbanization.

The subspecies edulis, native to Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, is another important source of genetic material for plant breeding. The fruit quality is good (though inferior to Haskap), and it contributes more cold hardiness and options for plant forms that can be machine harvested.

Since the plant material for the true haskaps was not readily available in 2003, test plot cultivars are from the subspecies edulis. These were obtained from Northwoods Nursery (see One Green World), whose owner, Jim Gilbert, has been instrumental in spreading the word about honeyberry. (Grower’s Note: Jim has not only been a reliable source for many unusual fruit crops, he has also provided valuable cultural information.) However, information is seldom directly transferable from one location to another. Honeyberry is an excellent case in point.

Observations at Carandale Farm

  • Adaptability seems to be cultivar-specific (see below).
  • Honeyberry has a cross-pollination requirement.
  • It is a well-behaved plant and does not appear to be an invasive threat.
  • Fruit does not appear to be affected by any pests (other than birds).
  • Leaves can become discolored (purplish-brown) later in the season and may have contributed to the loss of two cultivars that were less hardy.
  • Some cultivars have good mechanical harvesting potential with minimal pruning.
  • Flowers and fruit are extremely frost hardy.
  • The fruit of the Russian cultivars tested are somewhat tart but not astringent (low tannin levels).
  • Softness and elongated shape of the fruit could be problematic in some sorting and grading lines. (The Japanese have a significant processing industry and seem to have overcome this.)

Carandale has observed or is observing four Russian cultivars. Honeyberry has a short dormancy requirement. In warmer climates like the Pacific Northwest, some of the Russian cultivars tend to bloom early, before pollinators are active. These are designated as early blooming varieties. Others bloom fully a month later.

In 2003, Carandale received three cultivars from Northwoods Nursery. ‘Berry Blue’ is an early blooming variety that established well and continues to flourish 10 years later. It is a 6-foot upright shrub that could be mechanically harvested for commercial production. The fruit is dark blue with an elongated shape, comparable in size to a blueberry. The flavor is good, somewhat tart, but not unpleasant.

The other two varieties planted in 2003 were late blooming cultivars, ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Blue Velvet’. In the Carandale Farm environment there was essentially no difference in bloom time between the early blooming and late blooming types. Both of these varieties seemed to establish well but started to decline in the second and third year and were dead by the fourth. Fruit quality was average, but no better than ‘Berry Blue’. Both cultivars had a low spreading growth habit that would not have adapted well for mechanical harvesting.

After losing ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Blue Velvet’, Carandale had no cross-pollination for ‘Berry Blue’. In 2006, they ordered another early blooming type, ‘Blue Bird’, for cross-pollination. Unfortunately, this cultivar has been slow to establish, possibly due to having moved it twice and its partial shading by the much taller ‘Berry Blue’.

Discussion

This fruit meets all Carandale’s criteria for a fruit crop that would fit into a diverse fruiting system and could be sustainably grown. Its economic potential is increasing as new cultivars are selected. When Carandale established their planting, most of the material available was of Russian origin adapted to very cold, very short growing season conditions. Thanks to a diverse gene pool and a short breeding cycle, two researchers, Dr. Maxine Thompson and Dr. Bob Bors, have made remarkable progress in introducing regionally adapted, higher quality and more grower friendly selections. These selections could make this species a profitable addition to an integrated fruit growing system.

As a very early, machine harvestable fruit crop, honeyberry could provide an early start for a fresh fruit processing facility, thereby increasing economic feasibility of such a facility. The fruit has a wide range of processing options and newer selections may have good fresh market appeal. Even the Russian cultivar ‘Berry Blue’, which continues to thrive in the Carandale test plot, makes a good addition to a fresh fruit salad.

References

Growing Haskap/Blue honeysuckle in Canada,” by Dr. Bob Bors, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan
Haskap Growers Unite,” by Dr. Bob Bors, University of Saskatchewan
Haskaps and Honeyberries,’ by Danny L. Barney, PhD

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