When we think of honeysuckle, we tend to think about richly colored, fragrant flowers on beautiful vines like 'Scentsation' (Lonicera periclymenum), which blooms all summer long and perfumes the air with a fragrance better than anything found in a bottle.
If you live in the Eastern United States, you most likely think of Lonicera japonica, the weedy, tenacious Japanese honeysuckle vine that can be found in just about every fencerow.
But who would have ever thought of honeysuckle as an edible fruit crop? Not me, that is, until I discovered sweetberry honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea, when visiting nurseries in Eastern Europe. Also known as the blue or edible honeysuckle, this little-known deciduous shrub is native to the colder, northern regions of Europe, Asia and even North America. Finding cultivated varieties in the former Eastern Bloc was not a total surprise: these countries had limited access to citrus and vitamin C during the Cold War, and as a result, they selected, bred, and developed a range of hardy fruit with high vitamin content. Mostly unfamiliar to Westerners, they grew and consumed berries such as Aronia (choke berry), Hippophae, (sea berry) and our newest discovery Lonicera caerulea, all of which are "superfruits" because of their extremely high vitamin and antioxidant content.
After leaning about Lonicera caerulea and its potential, we set out to acquire as many cultivars as possible. We discovered One Green World, a small mail order nursery that offered an array of unusual fruit plants including Lonicera, which they marketed under the name "honey berries." I also met Dr. Bob Bors from the University of Saskatchewan who had an edible Lonicera breeding program, and we acquired his selections too. We purchased dried fruit, juice and jam, all of which were incredibly delicious, with a flavor best described as a tangy combination of raspberry, blueberry and raisins. Still later on a trip to Hokkaido, Japan, we were served ice cream with a haskap sauce (a type of Loniceracaerulea) that was pretty much the best food that has ever hit my taste buds.
It was clear that this little known honeysuckle shrub had incredible potential. First off, honeysuckles are very easy to grow. Anyone can grow this shrub. Unlike blueberry plants, it does not require any special soil or pH to grow successfully. Unlike grapes, the fruit skin dissolves in your mouth unnoticed. The fruit ripens in early summer, about the same time as strawberries, but is easy to pick without bending over. Unlike blackberries and raspberries, the plants have no thorns, and the seeds are so small you don't even notice them. On the downside, honeysuckle fruit is typically too soft to ship fresh to supermarkets, and the yields are not as high as you get with commercial blueberry crops. Until recently, the fruit also had a high degree of tartness, making it best reserved for sauces, jams, juices and drying, as opposed to eating fresh. The tartness can be largely eliminated if you understand how to identify ripe fruit: just because the fruit turns blue does not mean it's time to pick it. The fruit is ripe if you can easily remove it from the stem without tugging. If there is resistance, wait until it falls easily into your hand, otherwise you will be very disappointed with the taste.
There is also a wide range of bitterness and sweetness depending upon the cultivar you grow. The vast majority of the Eastern European cultivars we have tasted tend to be on the bitter side and are best suited for processing. Most of these cultivars are derived from Lonicera caerulea var. edulis, Lonicera caerulea var.villosa, Lonicera caerulea var. pallasii,and Lonicera caerulea var. kamschatica. People in Eastern Europe typically call all these plants and their fruit kamschatica, zhimolost or zimolez. The vast majority of plants we initially acquired were of Eastern European origin.
What got us really excited about edible honeysuckle was a trip we made to the Czech Republic where we met Framtosel Krekci, a nurseryman and plant breeder who developed a new selection called Sugar Mountain® Blue. Skeptical, yet eager try a new selection, we sampled his fruit and discovered it was the sweetest we had ever tasted. We were so delighted, we worked over his hedge until every single berry was gone. Not only was the fruit sweet, it was also very large. While the typical fruit size ranges from 12 to 15mm in length, his variety had fruit in the 18 to 20mm range.
My excitement and appreciation for edible honeysuckle reached new levels when I got a phone call from Dr. Maxine Thompson, a retired fruit breeder from Oregon State University. Maxine had been breeding edible honeysuckle for years, but had been working strictly with Japanese haskap, Lonicera caerulea var.emphyllocalyx, which is native to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The advantage of pure Japanese haskap is that the fruit is larger and the plants bloom later. The flowers appear as much as four to six weeks later than Eastern European varieties, making them less susceptible to frost damage, more attractive to pollinators, and better suited to warmer climates. Maxine's extensive fruit breeding experience had paid dividends when it came to haskap: her breeding lines boasted substantial improvements in both fruit size and yields. She takes detailed data, such as brix counts, so that she can maximize sweetness and other desirable attributes. Her haskap breeding program was clearly light years ahead of all others.
After multiple visits to Maxine's breeding plot and sampling dozens of selections, we chose four of the sweetest and largest fruited plants and named them Yezberry™ haskaps. Yezberry™ refers to the island of Hokkaido, which was once called Yez or Yezo Island. It was very important to Maxine that we distinguish her breeding lines as pure haskap (Lonicera caerulea var. emphyllocalyx) originating from Hokkaido because of their unique qualities, and because, according to Maxine, growers were misleadingly selling Eastern European varieties as haskaps, which they are not.
Thus far we have introduced two of her haskaps, Yezberry™ Solo™ and Maxie™. Yezberry Maxie has the largest fruit yet: its berries are olive shaped, with very good sweetness and flavor. Yezberry Solo has large, plump fruit with very good sweetness and flavor, superior yields, and it is apomictic, meaning it will make fruit without cross-pollination from another variety. Though Yezberry™ Solo™ does not require a pollinator to get fruit, you will get larger fruit and higher yields if you grow another Yezberry™ haskap in close proximity.
The future for edible honeysuckle is bright. It is very cold hardy and easy to grow. The fruit has higher levels of vitamins C, A, and E than an orange, and three times the antioxidant level of blackberries. New breeding and the introduction of new haskap cultivars have brought us better tasting, sweeter and larger berries and plants with wider adaptability and higher yields. It is the perfect berry plant for growers selling u-pick or at local farmers markets. Best of all, it's just good fun to grow fresh, tasty fruit at home that does not require special care, soil amendments or pesticides. So hopefully, in the near future, when you think about honeysuckle, you'll think about how great it would be to mix some in your yogurt or put them on top of your vanilla ice cream. That's what I'm thinking. Yum.
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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers
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