Unless you count rhubarb, strawberries have always been the traditional first fruit of the spring for home growers. In recent years, however, another early fruit has been gaining attention.
Haskap, a subspecies of edible honeysuckle (Lonicera caerula ssp emphyllocalyx) is a fruit you might take for an oddly shaped blueberry at first glance. The name Haskap itself is from the language of the Ainu, the ancient native people of Hokkaido, Japan,
and means many fruit on branches. While Lonicera caerula is presently being sold by some nurseries, most of the currently sold varieties are from Russia. The big draw
is that Russian material is super hardy, actually grown north of the Arctic Circle in some places, but it has not performed well in the U.S. The plants seem to do all right in Saskatchewan, where the climate is more like Siberia, but elsewhere they are shy bearing. This is due to flowering very early, when it is too cool for insects to pollinate then, and because the Siberian
plants have a very short rest period. That is, in regions where winter temperatures fluctuate between cold and warm, the plants lose hardiness in warm spells are then subject to bud death when cold returns. Haskap is a Japanese subspecies which has shown superior adaptation to western Oregon and appears worthy of trials elswhere in North American locales. The Japanese use the name Haskap which is from the language of the Ainu, the ancient native people of Hokkaido, Japan, who have long collected these berries from wild plants. The name means many fruit on branches.
Haskap blooms a month or more after the Russian material and therefore sets much better crops. Since much of the Japanese material comes from the cold northern islands, such as Hokkaido, it is still extremely hardy. One outstanding trait of the small, white or cream colored flowers is their extreme resistance to spring frost damage. In Japan, Haskap blooms have been shown to withstand minus 10 degrees C. Further,
the island climate has humid summers, so Haskap plants ought to have fairly good disease resistance. Even so, this is one of the areas where test growing of the plants in many areas is needed.
There are Haskap plants with several growth habits, from sprawling, to mounded, to upright shrubs almost like blueberries. The form of the plant varies with the individal variety, though it can be influenced some by pruning and training. Determining
how much pruning and training Haskap plants need is another area where more tests will be needed.
Depending on the selection, the berries may be as large as an average blueberry, with varying shapes including; a sort of elongated football shape, barrel-shaped, pointed, and more. Color is an intense, dark blue. The seeds are small enough to be ignored when you eat the fruit. Flavor is variable, but in most selections I have tasted, the closest thing in flavor I could describe is somewhat like a tart blueberry, though there is a hint of an exotic flavor in many. The tartness isnt more intense than a tart apple, so the fruit can be eaten out of hand, though most people will prefer to cook them. Tartness decreases the longer
the berries hang on the bush with the berries becoming relatively sweet if left long enough. Additionally, there is evidence that careful selection could produce types with sweet fruit that would be good to eat uncooked. At present, the fruits best home use is in jams and baked goods such as pies.
The berries have a unique structure, being composed of two separate ovaries that are covered over with an outer fleshy layer, making the structure look like a single berry. In some selections, the covering doesnt go completely over the underlying structures, which look for all the world like two eyes peering out the end of the fruit. In most selections, however, the covering is complete, leaving just a small dot at the end of the berry.
Some selections of Haskap ripen before strawberries, though most ripen about with strawberries, depending on climate. Since the bush forms have the right traits to be machine harvested with the same equipment used on blueberries, Haskap would be attractive for commercial growing. It could be harvested and processed before blueberries, allowing a berry grower to extend his season with a crop handled with his existing equipment, but done before that equipment was needed for the blueberries.
Recognizing the potential of the edible honeysuckle, Dr. Maxine Thompson, professor emeritus from Oregon State University, has undertaken to improve the plant and bring it up to its full potential. She began in the 1990s, collecting as many varieties and related forms of the plant as possible. Her collection includes more material than any other of its kind in North America.
In the course of this work, she found that despite the fact that most currently available selections originated in Siberia, the plant has also been grown in Japan for a long time. In fact, the Japanese material proved to have some of the best traits available for improving the species, including later blooming, larger fruits, and better growth habits.
Dr. Thompson is longtime friend, and I’ve followed her work with considerable interest, even being fortunate enough to help a little in gathering breeding material. I’ve visited her work and have seen all aspects, from examining seedlings in the greenhouse to observing some of her first crosses in the field, and more.
Haskap is extremely easy to work with for breeding purposes. Fruit ripens in May and the seed can be harvested and planted immediately, germinating and growing into plants. The
seedlings become established the first season, and are then grown in pots the following spring-summer for fall planting 16 months after seeding. The spring following planting in the field, these same plants bloom and set their first crop, on shoots coming out of the previous seasons wood. This means that evaluation of selections can begin about twenty-two months after planting the seed. That allows fast removal of a very large
percentage of unpromising plants, rather than having to spend space and long time growing plants just to remove most of them. At the same time, it also means that breeding is much faster because good selections identified in the first season can be used as parents in the next season. Considering that most perennial fruits, such as blueberries, dont even germinate until the spring of the following year, and that it takes as much as five
years to get even one crop from a seedling of most perennial fruits, progress with Haskap has the potential to be very rapid for a perennial.
Its noteworthy that some plants, after setting one crop, will begin to set again later in the spring, as the new shoots get larger. Since there is a small break between the first and second set, the second set is usually still green when the first is ripe, creating the effect of two crops, though its essentially just a later part of the same crop. Large numbers of both ripe and green fruit is quite a sight on plants that havent even been in the ground a full year. These extended cropping types would have their greatest use for home or where hand harvest could be used. For machine harvest, more uniform ripening would be needed.
However, it could be that some selections could be left until all the fruit is colored, with the early fruit becoming sweeter, while the later fruit would add tartness to the mix. Again, this is something to be examined in trials of the plants.
At present, it is necessary to have two selections for cross pollination, to get a good crop. However, some of the collected material includes plants that are able to set small seedless fruit by themselves. Seedlessness isn’t any advantage, but the ability to set without pollination suggests that there are genes that could make it possible to breed self-fruitful
On Thursday, May 20, 2004, I visited Dr. Thompson’s field plots at Oregon State University to see some of the selections in action. It had been an early year, so that most of
her selections had already been harvested, but there was more than enough fruit left on most (many) bushes to at least give a good idea of the varieties.
The oldest plants in that field were three years old that spring and most were at least three feet (one meter) tall, with a good number that were bigger. Growth habits ranged from nearly prostrate, sprawling vine-like plants, to mounds, to upright bushes.
The majority of the fruits I sampled were tart, without any strong flavors. A few had a very subtle, perfumy undertone, and Dr. Thompson said she had one selection that was actually sweet that early. Unfortunately, that one had already been picked, so I couldn’t compare. Because of the earliness, none of the other selections had been on the plants long enough to have a chance to sweeten.
She also showed me a big, healthy looking plant with very large leaves and the biggest berries Id seen in the plot. She invited me to try it. Ive known her long enough I should have realized her smile had a twinkle of mischief in it; the berry was unpleasantly bitter. In visiting a Japanese botanic garden she collected seed from a Haskap plant with good quality fruit she found there, growing next to a plant that had bitter berries. But she forgot the good flavored one would have been pollinated by the bitter one. Apparently the bitterness gene is a single dominant because half the seedlings were bitter, including
the one I’d just tasted.
Thinking in terms of commercial production, Dr. Thompson had been selecting upright, open bushes that rather resembled blueberry bushes, with the aim of having plants that could be easily harvested by machine. Unfortunately, they were also easily harvested by birds, as attested to by the number of berries on the ground under each such bush. While Haskap fruits aren’t hard to pick, they dont readily fall until they are extremely ripe, but
the birds were able to knock off many of them in looking for the ones they liked best.
Among the other growth habit types, I noted plants that made a neat, rounded mound of foliage that almost looked as if it had been sheared. I thought those plants had potential as ornamental shrubs, at least. Dr. Thompson took me to one and lifted the foliage up. Underneath, low to the ground, the shoots were covered with fruit. While such plants couldnt be harvested readily for commercial use, they would be ideal for a home grower. They made a neat shrub that would fit right into the landscape, and their dense growth habit kept the fruit hidden from the birds. You could easily pick by lifting the shoots,
sliding a box under the bush, then just strip the fruit into the box. I believe a home grower might prefer a bird-resistant bush even if it required the slight effort of bending over to pick the fruit, over having to fight birds for the fruit on a more upright shrub.
In spite of the many qualities of Haskap, the real story is Dr. Thompson herself.
At 77, she is doing the majority of the work herself. As professor emeritus, she is allowed to use Oregon State University land and greenhouse space for which she pays researcher’s
fees. She has been able to get a few small grants, but she still winds up paying a lot out of her own pocket, and even doing much of the work herself, including much of the field and
greenhouse work such as planting, propagating, even weeding and mowing.
Given how much she has accomplished already, it would be a shame if her work didn’t live up to its tremendous potential for lack of finances. The nice thing is that aiding the work would help both commercial AND home growers, since the plant types each group would want aren’t necessarily the same. As noted, different Haskap selections could be good ornamentals, as well as being bird resistant, in addition to the types for commercial use.
The fruit is excellent for processing as jam, pie filling, and highly colored juice, suitable by itself or in blends with other juices. The intensity of Haskap’s color is such it could even have use as a natural food coloring. Haskap is an extremely healthful berry, as well. The fruit has been tested and found to be very high in anti-oxidants, comparable to values
reported in other berry crops, and other healthful substances. Raw Haskap is very high in vitamin C.
Right now, Haskap’s best home uses are, as with commercial production, for processed products such as jam, pie, and others. More trials are needed to test its potential for being eaten raw. As noted, there was at least one of Dr. Thompsons selections that became sweet very early, but apparently the average types need to hang on the plant after coloration to
develop more sweetness, or at least for the acid to decrease to make them taste less tart. Given the fast turn-around time in breeding, developing additional sweet fruited selections might not take an excessively long time.
While there is not yet material available for home testing, a commercial blueberry nursery has started a test plot of advanced selections. Dr. Thompson wants to be sure of the quality of her selections before releasing them. Nor does she plan to restrict distribution once she is satisfied with selections. She believes in the potential of Haskap and wants to see it reach
the public. She is being cautious because the blue honeysuckle material now being sold by nurseries is giving the plant a bad name and she wants to be certain of the quality and
characteristics of her selections before releasing them. When its time, though, increase will come quickly because the plants root easily from both dormant and green cuttings, so propagation of the released selections will proceed quickly.
Dr. Thompson will want to have her Haskap selections tested in a wide range of conditions, so there will be opportunities to work with these plants as the breeding work progresses.
At this time, Haskap is a plant for the future, but that future could arrive soon, given how quickly these plants bear and can be tested. IF there is support for Dr. Thompson’s work.
Haskap; its new, its different, but not difficult.
This is a project with great potential that deserves support.
To help further it, you can donate directly to:
Dr. Maxine Thompson
2715 NW. Frazier Creek Rd.
Corvallis, OR 97330
Contributed by Lon J. Rombough
Source: PLANT BREEDING NEWS (An Electronic Newsletter of Applied Plant Breeding Sponsored by FAO and Cornell University), EDITION 153, 29 January 2005