In 1998, the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program had four varieties of haskaps, or blue honeysuckle. Today, the university has more than 50 named varieties of haskaps in its collection—some of its own creation— and has become one of the leading centres in the world for haskap breeding.
The evolution of the haskap is a story of experimentation, curiosity and the power of organic breeding.
Haskap (Lonicera caerulea) is a northern species that can be found in North America as well as Europe and Asia. The bushes are extremely cold hardy, have few pests and ripen very early in the spring. The fruit, which looks like elongated blueberries, is often
described as tasting like a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry, but with its own distinctive “zing.”
In Japan, haskaps have been used for hundreds of years, and horticulturists in Siberia began studying the fruit in the 1950s. But in North America, there was little interest in haskaps before the 21st century. This is most likely because our native haskaps produced what Bob Bors of the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program describes as “horrible tasting” berries.
In the late 1990s Maxine Thompson of Oregon State University realized that better-tasting haskaps did exist in Japan and Russia. Working with nursery owner Jim Gi lber t, Thompson began breeding haskaps, and four of her varieties were acquired by the University of Saskatchewan in 1998.
Bors was drawn to the haskaps by how early they set fruit. In Saskatoon, the first frost-free date is June 1, and by then the berries were already changing colour. By the end of June, they were ripe.
Bors decided to cross some of the plants and see what happened.
“We had four varieties but one was very…late blooming,” he says. In fact, it bloomed so late that it wasn’t able to be pollinated so never set fruit. Bors selected the best tasting plant from the early bloomers saved the pollen and crossed it with the late bloomer.
“It turned out that some of the hybrids had good combinations of both parents,” he says. Some plants had produced berries that were sour but lacked flavour. Other varieties were bland but very sweet. Eventually Bors and his team were able to create a berry that had both flavour and sweetness, and they began propogating the plants.
Buoyed by their success, Bors sought out more varieties of haskaps from around the world and started to share their results beyond the university.
“We had a bunch of growers over to our first Haskap Day, and…I announced that in five to seven years we’re going to have something really worthwhile to release,” he says. “Everyone was mad at me because they said this tastes so good compared to what is on the market. If you wait five to seven years, people will try what’s on the market now and give up on this crop. So I reluctantly agreed to release it knowing that in a few years there would be something better.”
Bors’ prediction of something better has come to be.
The university has continued to improve the flavour of haskaps and has also increased berry size, plant size (important for mechanical harvesting), resistance to powdery mildew (the one ailment that occasionally afflicts haskaps) and ripening time.
Bors and his team are currently working on a fast-growing haskap that will produce a higher yield and come into production quicker for growers. “It’s a wild subspecies that grows really fast, but its fruit tastes disgusting,” he says. “We’re now into a couple of generations of breeding and they’re starting to not be disgusting. They’re making more fruit and they’re still growing fast and they’re also getting bigger. We did a whole bunch of crosses last year and we think this next generation will have something that will taste good. That will be a real breakthrough…for commercial growers.”
How to Make a Haskap
As Bors acquires new plants, the first step is to study them. The team plants the seeds or seedlings, grows them until they produce fruit, harvests them and then selects the best plants for breeding based on particular qualities.
Bob explains, “I know I want the sturdiness of this one subspecies and the sweetness of this one so I combine them.”
The team does controlled crosses where they cover or “bag” the plants and collect the pollen by hand. They then open the bags and hand-pollinate each plant. They save the seeds from the fruit and grow them in a greenhouse. The best plants from the greenhouse then graduate to the 20-acre seedling field.
In the field, Bors has a flagging system to identify the most promising plants, based on how productive they are, overall health of the plant, fruit size and taste.
“If I really like it, we’ll pick 200 g of fruit, and then in the winter we’ll analyse those,” he says.
Berries are photographed and frozen. Technicians then rate them for flavour, weigh them and analyse the sugar content and acidity. Based on the fruit analysis, the next stage is to propagate the plants and see how they do.
Several potentially worthwhile varieties of haskap are currently under trial at the university. After a few years of study, the team may undertake further breeding or may release the plants as a new variety of haskap.
“The program has changed over the years [in that] each generation we have higher criteria of what we want to release,” says Bors.
An Organic Evolution
All the improvements to haskaps that Bors and his team have achieved have happened through traditional, organic breeding techniques. “We’re not studying them genetically. We’re not into DNA analysis or trying to put new genes in,” says Bors.
In certain crops like wheat, which have been bred for centuries or are heavily engineered, the improvements that can be achieved today are minimal. But in haskaps, Bors feels there are significant opportunities to continue to enhance the fruit. “We can make haskaps two times better. Maybe that’s because it’s a newer crop that hasn’t been bred that much, but it also happens to be a species that’s around the world in the northern hemisphere. So there’s more genetic diversity between the different groups.”
The diversity of haskaps allows Bors to select for particular characteristics and continue to develop new varieties. “We’re always finding interesting things,” he says.
Haskaps Go Mainstream
Haskaps are growing in popularity, appearing at markets, berry farms and commercial operations. Their suitability to the Canadian climate, resistance to disease and pests, early ripening time and health benefits make them appealing for Canadian growers.
“I think haskap will eventually become one of the major mainstay berry crops for northern regions,” predicts Bors.
It was curiosity that led to Bors’ f irst haskap success. “The first cross…a logical breeder probably would never have done that because even when that plant does set fruit, it doesn’t have many fruit,” he explains. “Someone who didn’t want to be surprised would never have used it. At a university you can say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen.’ ”
Bors encourages growers to follow their curiosity and experiment. He says, “Try the new thing, but try the old thing too, and compare… Anyone can be a researcher.”
Learn more about haskaps and the University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program at www.fruit.usask.ca.
Julia Thomson, principal of 129 Communications, is a freelance communications consultant and writer who works with small businesses, blogs, websites and other media. She writes about gardening, home decor, animals and country living for a variety of publications, including her own blog Home on 129 Acres.