Saskatoon

(Amelanchier alnifolia)

Pembina fruit
‘Pembina’ fruit

Cultivars tested

‘Pembina’, ‘Smokey’, ‘Parkhill’, ‘Honeywood’, ‘Regent’

Description and site preference

Type and size – slowly spreading stoloniferous shrub, can reach 10 feet high
Hardiness zone – 2-7
Exposure – full sun for good fruiting
Soil – wide range of fertile soils, pH 5.0-8.0 (6.0-7.0 optimal)
Drainage – well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 2-4
Maintenance – minimal, selective pruning to control unwanted suckering
Life of planting – 30+ years
Machine harvest potential – high
Suitable markets – fresh and processed

Dormant Smokey
Dormant ‘Smokey’

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – high in fiber, riboflavin, biotin, iron and manganese
Adaptability – generally very good, cold hardy, varies by cultivar
Pest issues –similar to other pome fruit
Invasive potential – native
Environmental benefits – early blooming, provides habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high, similar to other small fruits in hedgerow planting
Shared equipment – high, same as other bush and shrub crops
Shared processing – high, same processing as many other small fruits
Co-marketing – high, both fresh market and processed

Integration potential – high

A good companion crop with good economic potential. Test plantings recommended for cultivar selection.

Saskatoon in bloom
Saskatoon in bloom

History and background

Members of the Amelanchier genus are widely distributed throughout North America and are known by many common names, including juneberry and serviceberry. Saskatoon refers to a specific species (alnifolia) native from the Northwest prairies up to the Southern Yukon. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden by Lee Reich provides detailed information about the Amelanchier genus. Saskatoon was selected because it was native to the region known to be fruitful and have good quality fruit, and grew as a shrub that had mechanical harvesting potential.

Saskatoon was historically used as a ingredient in pemmican, a semi-dry mixture of fruit and meat consumed by early Native Americans and later by others. Lee Reich, in Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, states that the fruit is sweet “with the richness of sweet cherry along with a hint of almond.” Saskatoon is one of the most cold hardy fruit plants available, tolerating temperatures to -60 degrees F. There is a small but expanding interest in growing saskatoon for commercial purposes in Canada. The fruit is very high in pectin, good fats, protein and fiber. It is a prome fruit in the rose family, so it can have some of the disease and insect issues associated with apples and pears, but its early harvest (late-June, early July) greatly reduces fruit exposure.

Saskatoon past bloom
Saskatoon plants, post-bloom

Observations at Carandale Farm

  • Adaptable, but there is variation among cultivars (see below).
  • As a native plant, it is not an invasive threat.
  • Some pest issues were experienced, but their impact appears to be cultivar specific.
  • Saskatoon can be quite fruitful. Carandale did not prune or manage test plants to maximize yield. The ‘Pembina’ cultivar is especially productive.
  • The mild, sweet, almond-like flavor gives saskatoon fresh market appeal.
  • Processing potential may be limited by its mild flavor, but this can be offset by pairing it with a tart fruit such as gooseberries that are ready at about the same time.
  • With proper pruning, its mechanical harvesting potential is very high.
  • It appears to be a good companion crop for sharing processing facilities and providing diversity.
  • Saskatoon appears to be quite frost tolerant. Carandale had good annual cropping even in the 2012 crop year when most other fruit crops were severely damaged.

Carandale is observing five cultivars. Selection was somewhat limited by what was available from U.S. nurseries. (There is a wider range of selections available in Canada, which is the incubator of the Saskatoon industry).

The first two selections planted in 2003 were ‘Pembina’ and ‘Smokey’ (five each from Raintree Nursery). All five of the ‘Pembina’ adapted quickly and were 10 feet tall in 2012. They produce large crops annually with large, sweet, flavorful fruit. Fruit is borne on long clusters, which increases fruitfulness. Fruit are also firm, giving them good handling and machine harvesting potential (which would require pruning to a more manageable height). ‘Pembina’ was Carandale’s best overall selection.

Of the five ‘Smokey’ plants, only three survived. The fruit is similar to ‘Pembina’, but plants are smaller and the fruit often becomes hard, dry and unmarketable. This could be patheogenic or physiological. It should be noted that the test plot soils are variable and can change from sandy to clay in a few feet due to glacial deposition. Saskatoon (even the ‘Pembina’ cultivar) seems to be more sensitive to this variability than most fruit crops in the test plot. There seems to be a preference for the sandier, well-drained soils. Observed differences in adaptability and plant vigor among cultivars could either be attributed to cultivar differences or soil variation or combination of the two. However, of the five cultivars in the test plot, only ‘Smokey’ fruit gets the dried appearance.

In 2004 Carandale ordered five ‘Parkhill’ and five ‘Honeywood’ plants from St. Lawrence Nurseries. The plants were small with few roots and did not transplant well. Two ‘Parkhill’ and three ‘Honeywood’ survived but didn’t produce until 2012. ‘Honeywood’ is less firm than ‘Smokey’ and ‘Pembina’. They have a good flavor and are quite juicy. The ‘Parkhill’ are similar, but the bushes were smaller and less productive.

In 2007 Carandale ordered ‘ Regent’ plants from Hidden Springs Nursery. Only one plant survived but has caught up in size and production to the ‘Honeywood’ and ‘Parkhill’ that were planted three years earlier. The fruit is elongated, soft and juicy. It seemed to lack flavor in prior years, but in 2012 (a very dry year) the fruit quality was better. The ‘Pembina’ fruit in 2012 was almost too firm, though overall quality was still good.

Discussion

Carandale observed genetic variability among individual cultivars in terms of adaptability, fruit quality and reaction to pests. With such a small test planting, it’s difficult to suggest certain cultivars, especially since they seem to be sensitive to meso-climatic conditions. Growers should do a test planting of several cultivars to determine which is best adapted to their site in terms of soil type, drainage, exposure and air circulation. Once an adaptable cultivar is found, there would be good marketing opportunities in the U.S. (as well as in Canada where it is already being marketed successfully). The biggest challenge for any little known fruit is public awareness. Saskatoon has an advantage because it has fresh fruit appeal. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden by Lee Reich is a good reference for information about cultivation and propagation.

Saskatoon would be a good choice to grow commercially. It has fresh market appeal and could be a pick-your-own option for growers. It also has good processing potential. One of the challenges will be to find the best cultivar for a specific site. There is a lot of genetic material to choose from, and a lot of potential for plant breeders to select even better varieties as popularity increases.

References

Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich
The Berry Growers Companion, by Barbara L. Bowling
Wikipedia entry on Amelanchier alnifolia

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