I received a letter from Fred Dorward who is a national NAFEX member from Whitehorse. He is interested in getting information on sweetberry honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea edulis, which is said to grow wild from British Columbia to Newfoundland. He also grows wild currants and gooseberries and has a collection of plants in his garden from Yukon’s southern border to Old Crow. Fred also grows apples, plums, and pears, and his plants are all about 2-3 years old. His address is:
Site 15 Comp 58
RR 2 Whitehorse
Yukon Y1A 5A5
Fred asked if Lonicera caerulea was native to Alaska, but according to Hulten’s Flora of Alaska, it is not. We have only one species, L. involucrata, which occurs in southeast Alaska, and its fruit is bitter. In Fairbanks, we have grown L. caerulea and the var. edulis as ornamental shrubs for many years, and some local nurserymen claim it is the hardiest honeysuckle around. Despite its hardiness, supplies of this plant in “Lower 48” nurseries are scarce because there are many more desirable ornamental honeysuckle species. L. caerulea is a large, dense shrub with bluish-green foliage and blue fruit. The fruit can be quite insipid, but the var. edulis is said to have sweeter fruit. I didn’t even know the fruit was edible until I visited the Soviet Union last summer. At the Novosibirsk Botanical Garden we saw several species that were being used for fruit production, and a burgundy-colored sauce made from the fruit was very tasty. There are several active breeding programs in the Soviet Union and Scandinavia that are looking for larger-sized fruit, firmer fruit with fewer and smaller seeds.
Literature on this potential fruit crop is scarce. Below is a short paragraph excerpted from a chapter in Advances in Fruit Breeding, written by George Darrow (1975 Purdue Univ. Press).
“Though fruit of most honeysuckle species is insipid or objectionable in flavor, that of a few northern species is edible. In eastern Siberia and Tibet, L. caerulea edulis is eaten and made into preserves. The berries are quite tart. In Canada, Simonet (Pomona 4:112, 1971) reported that two cultivars ‘George Bugnet’ and ‘Marie Bugnet’ have been selected for milder taste. The 1 1/2 meter tall plants have stiff, erect branches and can be grown on soil too high in lime for blueberries. The berries are very early, very juicy, dark blue, and have many small seeds. They mature from late May to early August in Alberta, Canada, earlier than blueberries. They remain on the bushes in good condition for many weeks.
The species, L villosa, to which American edible-fruited species are referred, is closely related to L caerulea edulis, the edible honeysuckle of Siberia.”
The plants at the Experiment Station in Fairbanks are subject to occasional winter injury, but they consistently produce ripe fruit in August. Last year several of our plants died, but it was hard to tell if the cause was winter injury. The plants were very old and neglected. One of our largest bushes suffered serious damage from snow load. It was growing next to an old birdcherry tree that fell over in a summer storm. Thus, it was fully exposed to heavy snowfall and completely flat the next spring. The stiff, upright branches snapped at the crown. Other plants already growing in exposed sites were not injured. Seeds and plants might be hard to find, but this shrub might add a bit of variety to northern fruit-grower’s gardens.
Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science at Balsgard, Kristianstad are also working on breeding work with honeysuckle. They have collected seeds of 5 species: L. caerulea edulis, L. altaica, L. kamtschatoca, L. regeliana and L. chamissoi. They tried cold, moist stratification of the seeds to encourage germination, but results were poor. They have had good germination results by using fresh seeds that are removed from the pulp and not allowed to dry out. Seeds are placed on wet paper with one end of the paper dipping in water like a wick. After 1 week seeds are transferred to new, wet paper because mold growth is rampant. In 2-3 weeks, the seeds germinate. After cotyledons appear, the seeds are transferred to potting soil for further growth.
Another plant that is receiving a lot of attention in Scandinavia, USSR and China is the sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides. It is a dioecious (????; has male and female plants) shrub, and the female plants are covered with round or oblong, orange or yellow fruit beginning in August. The plant is quite ornamental when fruiting, having long, willowly branches bent nearly to the ground with cascades of pea-sized fruit. The fruit is very juicy when ripe and very high in Vit C; it has a distinctive flavor, but a texture that is not unlike apricot juice. Cultivar selection is important since some fruit is extremely insipid while others are tangy-sweet. The biggest problem for sea buckthorn growers is harvesting. The fruit has a very short pedicel (stem) and is held tenaciously to the branches.. Presently, harvest is by hand, using what looks like a bent bobby pin to scrape the fruit from the branch. Breeders, however, are working on solving that problem.
In Fairbanks we have tried growing some ornamental selections of sea buckthorn with no success, but we have not given this species a good test. Cathy Wright and I brought seeds back from Siberia, and we will attempt a more extensive test in the coming years.