Category Archives: Uncategorized

Honeyberries – A New Crop for the Midwest?

Lonicera cearulea – blue honeysuckle, AKA “honeyberry”, “haskap” , and “mountain fly honeysuckle ” – by whatever name you call it, this plant is generating some excitement for its potential as a commercial crop.

Honeyberry cluster on bush.
Honeyberry cluster on bush.

The dark blue berries produced on small, multi-stemmed shrubs 2 – 6 feet tall are similar in size and flavor to blueberries. Like Aronia berries, honeyberries have 3 times more antioxidants than blueberries, but unlike Aronia, they taste good right off the bush. Growers report honeyberries sell out very quickly at farmers’ markets.

In the wild, honeyberries are found growing at the edges of wetland
s and in the shade of boreal (evergreen) forests across Northern Europe, Siberia, Northern Japan, and Canada. In the US they are found in the northern Midwest and in the NE from northwest Pennsylvania through New England. Honeyberries should not be confused with the exotic, invasive Amur and Tartarian honeysuckles. Honeyberries are not invasive; in fact, they need care and attention from humans in order to grow and thrive outside of their native habitats. Although they are cold-hardy to -50ºF, they do not compete well against grasses, and some are damaged by direct sunlight at southern latitudes.

Honeyberries originating from low humidity environments tend to be susceptible to the foliar fungal disease downy mildew.

In the wild, most honeyberry fruits are rather small, and flavor can be quite variable, from sweet-tart to bland or even bitter. In Russia and Japan, extensive breeding programs dating back decades resulted in the development of larger, better tasting berries on more productive bushes. In contrast, honeyberries were ignored in North America until quite recently, but brand new breeding programs by Dr. Maxine Thompson at Oregon State University and Dr. Robert Bors at University of Saskatchewan have already yielded some dramatic results. Cultivars producing better-tasting berries and more than twice the size of any in Asia are now available to growers in the US and Canada. Some of these new varieties are suited to mechanical harvesting.

Despite the rapid advances in the development of honeyberries, some significant challenges remain to be overcome before they become an important berry crop in North America. In the nursery trade, honeyberries of Russian origin dominate the US market. These Russian honeyberries bloom in March, well before the bees needed to pollinate them become active. This, pus their susceptibility to sunscald and foliar disease make this strain the least adapted to our latitude and climate. Worse still, some of the Russian cultivars were deliberately bred to have bitter-tasting berries for adding to Vodka. Some of these have found their way into the US market, leading some to believe the hype about honeyberries is fraudulent.

Honeyberries on bush.
Honeyberries on bush.

A great deal of work needs to be done to explore the limits of the honeyberry plant’s adaptability. “How far south can it be grown?” is a question that remains to be answered (current speculation is that zone 6 or 7 will be the limit). How much moisture do these plants need? Though they are found growing at wetland edges, it has been found they grow best in moist but well-drained soil. No one yet knows what the ideal ratio of shade to sunlight will be, or if this ratio will varyat different latitudes. Fertilizer requirements remain unexplored, except that N rates normal for blueberries can be lethal to honeyberries. Recommended plant spacing is just a guess at this point, and will be different for hand-picking verses mechanical harvesting.

One of the most serious problems facing this crop is the name. Many growers and researchers have adopted the Japanese name “haskap”. Others are using the name “honeyberry”. What you call a crop has a profound impact on its marketability. There are many examples of this, but one obvious case is the “Chinese gooseberry”. This plant was grown in the US for over 150 years, yet no-one was even interested in eating them until the name was changed to “Kiwi fruit”. It takes no explanation for why growers chose to replace the name “choke berry” with “Aronia berry”. “Honeyberry” is an excellent name for something you would expect to taste delicious. “Haskap”, to the ears of Americans, may refer to the lid for a special container for hazardous waste. Although I believe the name “honeyberry” will eventually prevail over “haskap”, I also think that the sooner we kill this name, the better.

Honeyberries are not well known in this country; in fact, most Americans have never heard of them. Much needs to be done to educate the public about this new crop, but I have no doubt that a native berry that tastes this good will have a bright future.  – Tom Wahl

Uncommon Fruits with Backyard or Commercial Potential

Let me tell you a story. The Chinese gooseberry, Actinidia deliciosa, a perennial vine native to eastern Asia, was grown as an ornamental for centuries. Even though it produced a fruit, few people consumed it and it was never found in the market. A few decades ago some enterprising New Zealanders decided to take the Chinese gooseberry commercial. They changed its name and came up with a marketing campaign. Today, kiwi is popular all over the world.   

There are thousands of fruits around the world that are seldom or never found in commerce. Of these, dozens – perhaps hundreds – are well suited to backyard culture and home use. Some of these could become commercially popular if more people knew about them. One example is Actinidia arguta, the hardy kiwi.  Hardy kiwi fruit is a smaller (about the size of a grape), sweeter, and mHardy kiwi fruit held in a hand.ore flavorful relative of the fuzzy kiwi found in stores. Its smooth skin does not need to be peeled. The vine is vigorous to the point of being rampant, requiring a very sturdy trellis to support the fruit load of up to 200 pounds per vine. They come in male and female; males produce no fruit, but are required for fruit production on females.

Another little known fruit with potential is the goumi, Eleagnus multiflora. This small tree or large shrub is a non-invasive reGoumi fruit held in a hand.lative of the invasive pests autumn olive and Russian olive. The potentially heavy crops are sweet-tart and cherry like in size and flavor, but without the pest and disease problems associated withcherry production.  It is hardy through zone 5.

Che, Cudrania tricuspidata, sometimes called “melon berry” or “silk thorn” is a Chinese relative of our native Osage orange. Che fruit resembles Osage orange, but is only 1” – 2” in diameter and deep red when ripe. A more important distinction is that while t

Che fruit on bush.
Che fruit on bush.

he larger Osage orange is inedible, the fruit of the che is chewy but delicious. The flavor is said to resemble a mix of mulberry and fig, both of which are related to che. Though it usually only reaches the size of a large shrub or small tree, che can produce up to 400 pounds of fruit. The long growing season required to ripen the fruit limits the production to zone 5b and south. Development of earlier ripening cultivars could potentially extend its range northward. Like the kiwi, che comes in male and female, but unlike kiwi, some female che will bear seedless fruit without a male nearby.

The Cornelian cherry Cornus mas, is not a cherry at all, but a type of dogwood native to Europe and Asia. Like the goumi, it can produce very large crops of bright red, sweet-tart fruits on

Cornelian Cherries
Cornelian Cherries

a large shrub. The fruits are similar in size and flavor to pie cherries. Also like the goumi, it seems to be unbothered by pests and diseases. Even Japanese beetles seem to leave them alone. They are cold-hardy though zone 4.

A close relative of Cornelian cherry is the kousa dogwood.  In early spring it is covered by large, showy white flowers like our own native flowering dogwood, but on this eastern Asia native the floKousa fruit in hand.wers are followed by edible red fruit. Kousa fruits are highly variable in size, flavor and quality. The best of these have a creamy texture and a sweet flavor reminiscent of paw paw. Unfortunately, kousa varieties are usually selected for ornamental qualities. One single cultivar, ‘Big Apple’, has been selected for large fruit size. So far, no kousa varieties have been selected for fruit flavor or quality.

Mayhaw is a term applied to hawthorns, Crataegers sp., that are highly prized for their fruits. In the stricteMahaw fruit in hand next to jar of mayhaw sense, mayhaw is C. aestivalis, a species native to the southeastern US. Mayhaw fruits are small, bright red, tart, but rich tasting. The shrub or small tree can tolerate a very wide range of conditions but is usually found on wet or even swampy sites. The mayhaw flowers and fruits very early for a hawthorn. In the Deep South, fruits ripen in May, hence the name. Devoted fans of the mayhaw claim it makes the very best jelly in the world.

More broadly, “mayhaw” may be applied to any of several other species of hawthorn with high quality fruit. Most of these are native to the northeastern US and their fruits ripen in the fall. Arnold hawthorn, C. arnoldiania and scarlet hawthorn, C. pedicellata are a couple of the better known hawthorns with commercial potential.

Medlar is a relative of hawthorns, apples and pears. The fruit of this Eurasian shrub or small tree was one of the most commercially important in Europe during the Middle Ages, but has since faMedlar fruit on treellen into obscurity. The mature fruit is brown, hard, 1” – 2” in diameter, and somewhat resembles a small apple or pear, but with a very large calyx or “blossom end”. This characteristic gave rise to the fruit’s old common name “open arse.” Mature fruit are too hard and astringent to eat. They must first go through a process of over-ripening called “bletting.” When they reach the point of becoming mushy, fully bletted medlars take on a flavor and consistency of applesauce spiced with cinnamon. To eat the fruit you bite a hole in the tough skin and suck the pulp, using your teeth to strain out the large, hard seeds. It is no wonder the fruit has fallen out of favor, and it is not grown commercially anywhere in the world today. Where i
s the commercial potential? Certainly it is not with the general public. On the other hand, even in isolated rural areas you can find groups of people who will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to dress up in Medieval costumes to attend “Madrigal Dinners” or “Renaissance Faires”. Just imagine what you could charge if you were the only supplier of authentic bletted medlar fruit to su
ch an event! – Tom

A Case for Diversity

It’s an old cliché: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The bizarre weather of 2012 provided a powerful lesson about crop diversity. Locally, we had total to near total crop failure of apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, Aronia berries, kiwi fruit, paw paws, heartnuts, black walnuts, pecans, and even oaks and hickories. There were a few bright spots. Persimmons, hazels and blueberries had normal crops. Due to the mild winter, blackberries had a bumper crop.
Extremes of heat, cold, rain, snow, ice, wind, and drought

Young chestnut leaves killed by unexpected freeze.
Young chestnut leaves killed by unexpected freeze.

will affect different tree crops differently, according to both the crop and the timing of the event. A hard frost on May 1st may damage an apple crop but leave chestnuts unharmed. The very same temperature on May 20th might ruin the chestnut crop but leave apples unhurt. The greater the number of different kinds of crops you grow, the less the likelihood there is of an extreme weather event wiping out all of your crops.
The benefits of greater crop diversity are not limited to resiliency in the face of weather extremes. A greater number of different kinds of plants on the landscape has been shown to dramatically reduce the number and severity of pest and disease outbreaks. This in turn will both increase the size of the harvests while reducing the cost of production.
Yet one more benefit to crop diversity is to spread out the workload through the season. Raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries are ready in June and July. Aronia berries are harvested early to mid-August. Hazels are picked mid-August to mid-September. Chestnut, persimmon and pawpaw harvest runs from mid-September to late October.
The arguments in favor of crop diversity are many and powerful. Perhaps it is time you considered diversifying. – Tom Wahl