THE BLUE HONEYSUCKLE: A NEW FRUIT CROP OF MANY NAMES

Eric Gerbrandt

University of Fraser Valley

Figure 1. Ripe Japanese blue honeysuckle in Southwestern British Columbia.
Photo E. Gerbrandt

“It’s a haskap…it’s a honeyberry…no, it’s a blue honeysuckle”.  If these names sound familiar, and if you’re confused as to what they refer, you’re not the only one.  To clear up the confusion: these names are practically synonymous, being used for different types of the same crop.  The blue honeysuckle is a relatively novel, blue berry that ripens very early in the season, is high in antioxidants and is touted as one of the new super fruits.  Calling it a “blue berry” adds to the confusion, making further clarification necessary.  The blue honeysuckle is not just a different type of blueberry, as highbush, lowbush and rabbiteye blueberries are all different types of blueberry.

 

Botanically speaking, the blue honeysuckle is found in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) and is not closely related to the blueberry, which is in the heather family (Ericaceae).  Therefore, it is not a “blueberry” but has small blue berries, nonetheless.  The small blue fruit of the blue honeysuckle range in shape from an almost perfect oval to a rounded torpedo and from an elongated bottle to an oblong bell, depending on the genetic heritage.  Part of this confusion in terms is due to the fact that we use the word berry to refer to the small fruits that we eat by the hand-full and it just so happens that many small fruits have the word “berry” in their name.  In actuality, aside from “true” berries like the blueberry, most of the berries we eat are not actual berries (being a fleshy fruit made from a single flower with a single ovary), but we call them berries for historical and culinary reasons.  For example, the strawberry is an aggregate accessory fruit while raspberry and blackberry are aggregate fruit with many drupelets.  Likewise, the blue honeysuckle is not technically a berry, but is a multiple accessory fruit with the individual ovaries from two separate flowers being enclosed in a sheath of non-fruit tissue.

 

The outer layers of the two enclosed ovaries, as well as the surrounding sheath, are loaded with darkly coloured pigments, which contribute not only to the crop’s claims to high levels of antioxidants but also to the versatility of end uses for the crop.  Specifically, these heavily pigmented fruit can be eaten fresh, staining the mouth temporarily bright red, or used in myriad frozen or processed products, providing some of the most intense coloring of any fruit crop.  A small amount of blue honeysuckle can go a long way to producing a reddish purple hue to virtually any processed product from jam or jelly to juice or wine.  A high ratio of acid to sugar and a unique flavour profile makes this tart fruit an instant favourite for some people while others still prefer the more mellow flavour of a blueberry.  Consequently, it fits the role of a niche market product very well.

 

It is also incorrect to refer to the blue honeysuckle as a “hybrid crop” as the word is used in common parlance, referring to some unholy union between two completely different fruit crops.  In fact, though new varieties of plant are generally bred by hybridizing (i.e., mating) a mother and father plant, this does not necessarily mean that they are the result of a melding of two different crops.  Simply put, varieties of the blue honeysuckle are made by hybridization of mother and father plants within the same closely related crop species and sub-species rather than through admixture of entirely different crops.  This is the same as for most other commonly consumed small fruit crops despite the fact that some people insist on referring to the flavour of the blue honeysuckle as a mixture between various common fruits.  To this author, this comparison is about as meaningful saying that something “tastes like chicken”.  The flavour of the fruit, varying to a great extent across the range of blue honeysuckle varieties, is as unique to the crop itself as the flavour of any other crop is to itself.

 

As a new crop in the Pacific Northwest, we return to a discussion of names.  Blue honeysuckle is a generic name that encompasses everything that can be considered some form of this novel crop.  Though there are many different types of blue honeysuckle (either species or sub-species, depending on the taxonomist), there are three main regions from which commercial varieties originate: Russia, the Kuril Islands and Japan.  There are types of blue honeysuckle that are native to North American that are being used in breeding in Canada, but none of these genetics have made their way into commercial varieties to date.

 

Honeyberry is a common name used in the United States, mostly in reference to older Russian varieties as well as their hybrids with Kuril Island types.  The Russian varieties are the earliest to bloom and have a diversity of interesting shapes such as the bottles and bells mentioned above.  From experience in Oregon and southwestern BC, these types have shown limited utility in the Pacific Northwest because they do not stay dormant during the winter and bloom too early to receive adequate pollination.  The Kuril varieties are the latest to bloom, having a squat growth habit and many tiny plant hairs on the leaves and the ends of the fruit.  These types grow at the appropriate time of the season in Oregon and BC, but have much to be desired in terms of yield, fruit quality and ease of harvest.

 

Haskap is a name for the types of blue honeysuckle native to Japan, but it is commonly being used to refer to a wide variety of hybrids between Russian, Kuril and/or Japanese types of blue honeysuckle.  Japanese blue honeysuckle tend to bloom intermediate between the Russian and Kuril types and possess some considerable fruit quality and yield traits that are sure to make them a commercial success as new varieties are made available in the next couple of years.  The hybrid types produced in Canada vary in their performance in BC and Oregon, but are generally not as well adapted as pure Japanese varieties.

 

As with many new products on the market, the blue honeysuckle has attracted considerable excitement from producers and consumers, but this crop is still in its early stages of development.  New varieties are being bred in Canada and the US, but the blue honeysuckle industry is in its infancy in regard to its ability to effectively market fruit.  No matter the name used, haskap, honeyberry or blue honeysuckle, it’s the same crop.  But, as for all crops, there is important variability in climatic adaptation and production potential under the catch-all name of the blue honeysuckle.

 

 

Figure 2. Hand-harvested fruit ready for eating, freezing or processing.
Photo E. Gerbrandt

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