The Honeyberry: A Subzero Gardening Hero

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Photo by Bernis Ingvaldson

Living in northern Minnesota has afforded our family an idyllic Mother Earth News lifestyle for over 40 years — with one exception. Our long, harsh, ultracold winters have made growing fruit downright difficult. Although berry pickers from around the state rave about wild blueberry crops, climate fluctuations and prolonged drought conditions have sometimes made Minnesota’s wild fruit crops nonexistent. After conducting several expensive blueberry trials with disappointing results, I visited with a local organic gardener who asked me if I’d ever heard of haskap berries. Has … what?

According to this gardener, haskaps are easier to grow and have dependably higher yields than the state’s more familiar wild or domestic blueberries. A Zone 3, super-hardy, deep-blue berry that’s better than our state blueberry? I balked at the thought, and at the name, but I’ve never been happier to find that some things that seem too good to be true live up to expectations!

Photo by Bernis Ingvaldson

Members of the Caprifoliaceae family, haskaps (Lonicera caerulea) — also called “blue honeysuckles,” “honeyberries,” and “sweetberry honeysuckles” — are cold-hardy bushes that yield tart, antioxidant-rich berries. They grow wild throughout the colder regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The northern provinces of Japan boast many acres of haskap farms, where the delicate, delicious berries find their way into the buckets and stomachs of all who trek there to pick them. In fact, the common name “haskap” is the phonetic spelling of the 13th-century Japanese name for the plant.

A North American Novelty

At the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Dr. Bob Bors is credited with studying and developing many of the different cultivars of honeyberries that have gained international attention and accolades, and the university’s program offers a wide variety of hardy cultivars. In the United States, several breeding programs have forged new cultivars more suited to the nation’s western climates. Dr. Maxine Thompson, a retired professor from Oregon State University, has focused on breeding plants using pure Japanese genetics to enable the haskaps to handle temperate winters without blooming too early. Additionally, Lidia Stuart, co-owner of Berries Unlimited nursery in Arkansas, has primarily focused on adapting early-blossoming Russian cultivars.

Photo by Bernis Ingvaldson

In my quest to learn more, I first met some folks along the Canadian border who’d purchased a variety of haskap plants from a northern Minnesota mail-order nursery. Their berry patch had been so successful that they were picking enough haskaps to fill multiple freezers.

After inquiring further, I found myself traveling in the freezing cold of a Minnesota winter to the nursery I’d been told about. It was there that I met another hardy honeyberry grower who was willing to share her vast knowledge.

Growing Minnesota’s Other Blue Berry

The town of Bagley, Minnesota, boasts one of the finest mail-order nurseries and pick-your-own honeyberry enterprises you can find in North America. Here, owners Jim and Bernis Ingvaldson cultivate 2 acres of thriving honeyberries, which are relished by locals and harvested for local beer and wine production. The berry harvest begins right around the summer solstice — when the earliest cultivars start to mature for picking — and extends until mid-July.

Photo by Bernis Ingvaldson

Canadian-born Bernis says she was initially intrigued by honeyberries when she saw them in an early-spring seed catalog in 2010. Bernis and I had both tired of trying to grow pH-sensitive blueberries and had all but given up on finding a fruit to withstand the Minnesotan frost. Ever the adventurer, she sent for two small bare-root honeyberry plants, and put the stick-like hopefuls in the soil when they arrived.

When Bernis was visiting Saskatchewan later that summer, a friend commented offhand that her mother-in-law had planted haskaps, which boasted a tolerance of minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and asked Bernis if she’d like to taste some of the oblong berries. Bernis described her first handful of the warm, handpicked fruit: “The thin-skinned berry melted away, and a tangy, sweet sensation lingered in my mouth.” The friend later said she had a hard time putting up the berry crop because her son would eat them all right off the bushes!

Photo by Adobe Stock/EvaMira

Eager to start her own orchard back home, Bernis began talking about her experience with haskaps, and wound up ordering several hundred imported berry bushes that autumn for her own berry patch, as well as to sell within the community. The initial sales were tremendous, leaving only 120 berry bushes for Jim and Bernis to plant on an open acre of land that became the beginning of The Honeyberry Farm U-Pick and Honeyberry USA mail-order nursery.

Jim and Bernis soon found that honeyberries grew well in their heavy clay soil. In fact, these hardy berries may perform better in clay soils than predominantly sandy soils. Not only that, but the couple’s observations also showed that the bushes grow well in most soils, and can thrive in a wide range of pH levels, from 4.5 to 8.5 (though 5 to 8 is preferred).

Photo by Getty Images/elf911

Honeyberries don’t propagate through suckers, but instead send up shoots from the root crown. The bushes grow well in sunny or shady locations, depending on your Zone; they bear fruit best in full sun when grown in northern Zones, but benefit from some protection from the sun when grown in southern Zones. Honeyberries are best suited for Zones 2 through 7, but with the right cultivar and extra attention, it’s possible to grow honeyberries in Zones 1, 8, and 9 as well.

Plants should be spaced about 5 feet apart, and two or more cultivars of the same blooming period should be planted for maximum fruit set. Cultivars viable for Zones 2 through 7 will grow anywhere from 3 to 6 feet tall, and range about the same amount in diameter. Newly planted bushes need 1 to 2 inches of water every week, and keeping the bushes mulched, or tilled free of weeds and grass for the first few years, is critical to ensure the best growth.

Photo by Bernis Ingvaldson

Even with an extensive accompaniment of other cold-hardy northern fruits at The Honeyberry Farm, the haskap remains the favorite of most nursery customers. They’re easy to grow, and with their delicate skin, tiny seeds, and energizing flavor, it’s no wonder that the lovely, delicious berries — once only well-known in Japan and Russia — have become the subzero heroes of growers throughout the northern U.S.

Touch Base with Honeyberry USA

Jim and Bernis’ mail-order nursery now offers an extensive line of specialty cold-hardy fruits, including tart cherries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries, saskatoon (or June berries), sea buckthorn berries, high bush cranberries, kiwi, arctic raspberries, aronia, and black raspberries, in addition to new cultivars of haskaps. Their informative website is also full of links to videos and resources for growing these fruits. Bernis likes to say that she puts her “brain on the web,” as whatever she’s found helpful, she believes others will benefit from as well.

You can contact them by mail at Honeyberry USA, P.O. Box 512, Bagley, Minnesota 56621, or call 218-331-8070. They’re often in their greenhouses or berry patches, so leave a message and they’ll get back to you. Honeyberry Farm is open Sunday through Friday, but they suggest you call ahead to confirm that the berries are ready to pick, and that Jim and Bernis are available to assist you.

As well as being a teacher and avid organic gardener for many years, Jenny Moorman is a grants specialist, public speaker, certified naturalist, and nature writer.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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