If you’ve come upon fruiting blue honeysuckle bushes in your local garden center this year, you can thank two fruit-loving Oregonians, Jim Gilbert and Maxine Thompson.
After one of his fruit-gathering trips to Russia in the 1990s, Jim introduced American gardeners to Lonicera caerulea, or the honeyberry, as he called it, through his mail-order nursery, One Green World. Later Maxine, a professor emeritus in horticulture at Oregon State University, began breeding the Japanese subspecies, from the northern island of Hokkaido. Maxine called the berries haskap, their Ainu name. She has sold plants of numbered selections to people who wanted to test them and, subsequently, propagation rights to nurseries all over the world.
If you get the right variety for your region, these plants may be worth a try in your garden. Dark-skinned, with a bloom, the fruits look like elongated blueberries. They are high in vitamin C and richer in antioxidants than even black currants. The berries are not particularly aromatic, but they are mildly sweet and pleasantly tart. Their many seeds are hardly noticeable on the tongue, and the berries makes a luscious jam with no need for added pectin and none of the graininess of blueberry jam.
I planted two of Jim’s honeyberry varieties on our farm about ten years ago. One never produced berries; the other produced a few, but only once or twice. I admit that I probably didn’t water the plants often enough, but Maxine, when I visited her homestead in wooded hills north of Corvallis, explained to me the bigger problem: The two Russian subspecies, L. caerulea var. edulis and L. caerulea var. kamtschatica, are adapted to extremely cold winters. Here in the Willamette Valley, they break dormancy too early and as a result bloom too early. The Japanese subspecies, L. caerulea var. emphyllocalyx, blooms about a month later. And yet haskaps are the earliest berries of the year, ripening even before strawberries.
The three plants Maxine sold me, each of a different numbered variety, grew into little vase-shaped shrubs beside our farmhouse. They looked very different from the sprawling honeyberry plants I’d bought from One Green World. One of those was entirely prostrate and the other a little taller, but both seemed unsure whether they were vine or bush.
Upon selling the farm I said goodbye to Jim’s honeyberries, dug up Maxine’s plants, and set the haskaps in our little city garden, where they are thriving. Now four years old, they are three to four feet tall and maintaining their handsome vase-shape. And this year, for the first time, they provided me a substantial crop.
As Maxine must have intended, the three selections together exemplify the diversity of the haskap subspecies. One’s fruits are long and torpedo-shaped, extra-tart and least numerous. The more productive, medium-size plant has thick, blunt-ended, sweeter berries. The smallest plant has the shortest berries, and their tendency to hold on to their blossoms makes for a bit of fuss in the kitchen.
The L. caerulea plants you find in your garden center will have names, not numbers. Yezberries (Yez is an old name for Hokkaido) are Maxine’s selections, released in 2016 and 2017. Yezberries Maxie, Solo, Keiko, Tanna, and Sugar Pie all bloom late and are suitable for warmer climates, like mine and Maxine’s. Also late-blooming are some of the varieties bred by Bob Bors, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has crossed Maxine’s Japanese selections with Russian honeyberries. Bob’s releases include the late-blooming Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty, and Boreal Beast, and, for colder regions, the earlier-blooming Indigo series, Tundra, Borealis, Aurora, and Honey Bee. Other early bloomers are Berry Smart and Sugar Mountain Blue, both bred in the Czech Republic. You’ll find information on all of these at Honeyberry USA.*
None of these haskap or honeyberry varieties is self-fruitful, so plan to buy at least two plants, of different, compatible varieties. Plant them five to six feet apart in a sunny place. Give them some mulch, and water them now and then, but don’t worry—haskaps aren’t nearly so thirsty as blueberries. L. caerulea doesn’t need acidic soil, either.
Most varieties will grow to about six feet tall. After four or five years you’ll probably want to prune the bushes lightly, by removing weak growth and the oldest wood; this will make harvest easier. You’ll probably be harvesting more than once each season, because the berries generally don’t all ripen at once (some varieties hold on to their fruits better than others, making it possible to delay picking). You’ll likely deal with no pests but birds.
After about five years the average haskap or honeyberry plant is said to produce 8 to 10 pounds fruit. From my three plants I got only about two pounds this year, but my plants are set a bit close to one other and to other shrubs in my edible landscape, and, after all, they suffered a move after their first two years. I expect a bigger harvest next year.
Haskaps are easy to prepare and store. Maxine, an octogenarian fireball when I met her (she died in 2021, at ninety-five years), was freezing most of her berries and sending each buyer home with a bag of frozen fruit and a recipe for haskap crisp: Mix 6 cups berries with 1½ cups sugar and 2 tablespoons tapioca; top the sugared berries with a mix of 1½ cups each brown sugar, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour, 1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts and ½ cup melted butter; and bake about ½ hour at 350 degrees F.
Drying haskaps may be trickier. When I dried some in a small dehydrator that lacks a thermostat, it was difficult to keep the berries from turning hard and crisp. Like cranberries, they might dry to a more appealing, tender, chewy texture after a soak in syrup. Without added sugar, I suspect, haskaps should be dried slowly, at a low temperature.
I had to try making haskap jam. This couldn’t have been easier. Here is my small-batch, low-sugar recipe.
Quick Haskap Jam
To ensure good gelling, I nearly always add lemon juice to my jams. My haskap jam, however, turned out quite tart, so next year I’ll try the recipe without added lemon.
1 pound haskaps, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar
Put the haskaps into a 12-inch nonreactive skillet. Mash them coarsely (I use a potato masher). Heat them over medium heat to a gentle boil.
Turn off the heat, and add the lemon juice and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, until a drop of jam mounds slightly in a chilled dish. This should take no more than 5 minutes.
Ladle the jam into pint jar or two half-pint jars. Process the jars, if you like, or else store them in the refrigerator.
Makes about 1 pint
*Another good source of information about L. caerulea is the website of the Haskap Canada Association.