'A funny berry': Haskaps catching on with Alberta growers

Across six acres of Ross Ehalt’s farm in Sturgeon County north of Edmonton indigo-blue cylindrical fruit is beginning to plump on the vine.

Ehalt is among a growing number of Alberta producers cultivating annual bumper crops of haskap berries.

The berry — which looks like something akin to an elongated blueberry — is beginning to gain recognition for its high antioxidant content, unusual flavour and ability to flourish in harsh weather, Ehalt said.

“It’s a funny berry because it’s not well known but yet it actually grows naturally in almost every province in Canada except B.C,” said Ehalt, vice-chair of the Haskap Alberta Association, formed in 2018 to help promote the industry.

“People don’t really know about them even though they’ve existed and been around for a really long time,” he said.

“We, as an industry, are really trying to let people know about them because we think they’re a really great, super fruit.”

‘Chilly roots’

Haskap, which means “little present on the end of a branch” in Japanese, is the perfect name for the berries which grow in large bunches on waxy green shrubs, Ehalt said.

After harvest in late June or early July, the berries can be eaten fresh, stewed into a sweet compote, added to baking or even brewed into wine.

“I would absolutely describe them as tart,” Ehalt said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. “A lot of people think it’s like a tangy raspberry and blueberry together.”

Found near the wetlands of boreal forests or high in the mountains, the berries — also known as blue honeysuckle or honeyberry — are native to Canada, Japan and Russia.

While they have grown without cultivation for centuries, Bob Bors, head of the fruit program at the University of Saskatchewan, is credited with taking the haskap out of the wild and onto the farm.

Bors has been breeding haskap berries for more than 15 years, cultivating bigger, more flavorful varieties which are better suited to large-scale agriculture.

The prairies are proving to be an ideal place to grow haskaps, Ehalt said.

While many berries struggle to thrive in Alberta, the haskap always bears fruit, he said.

“It seems to thrive in Alberta weather. It’s extremely cold tolerant,” he said.

“Haskaps really like chilly roots.”

Farmers in Alberta are cultivating the haskap berry in greater numbers because it is hearty for cold climates and has antioxidant properties. 5:37

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