Honeyberries

Honeyberries are native to Siberia and Japan, and grow well in Alaska. They are sometimes called blue honeysuckle berries, sweet honeysuckle, hascaps or haksaps. According to retired UAF professor and horticulturalist Patricia Holloway, the Georgeson Botanical Garden is completing a trial of nine different cultivars of honeyberry and hascap. 

FAIRBANKS — I am at a loss as to why every home garden in the Interior does not have a spot allocated to honeyberry bushes. They are incredibly hardy, they don’t try to take over your entire yard the way raspberries do, and the berries they produce are larger, sweeter and tastier than our local blueberries. If you are concerned about nutrition, honeyberries are reported to contain more iron than blueberries, as well as higher levels of vitamins C and A and calcium. Canadian scientists say that they have twice as many nutrients as other berries.

Honeyberries are native to Siberia and Japan, and are sometimes called blue honeysuckle berries, sweet honeysuckle, hascaps or haksaps. According to retired UAF professor and horticulturalist Patricia Holloway, our Georgeson Botanical Garden is completing a trial of nine different cultivars of honeyberry and hascap, “and they all survived beautifully. We actually have grown this plant, originally known as sweetberry honeysuckle for many years. It was at the garden when I got there in 1975 and was used as an ornamental shrub. The true species has tons of fruit but it is really insipid. The Russians were the first to breed them and improve their flavor. The Russians actually have five species of Lonicera that they cultivate. They are incredibly productive and early. I’m a fan!”

This year Britain is beginning to introduce honeyberries into supermarkets, and if that proves successful I am sure we will be seeing them in U.S. grocery stores soon, too. But why wait? There is still time for you to plant your own this year or to put them on your list for fruits you intend to grow next year.

I have had honeyberry bushes for five years. Someone who water walks at the Mary Siah pool at the same time I used to brought a bowl of the berries in for others to try. They looked like elongated blueberries and were so wonderfully sweet that I bought two bushes the next day.

When I planted them, I knew nothing about their care and it was only blind luck that resulted in me buying two different varieties. There are a few fruiting trees and shrubs that need cross pollination from another variety of the same fruit, and honeyberries are among them. So, if you go out to purchase honeyberries, make sure to buy two; some local nurseries put two different types of honeyberries in one pot, to insure customers will get a good crop even if they are as ignorant as I was.

There are no special transplanting techniques required. Like most plants, they do best in sunny, well draining soil, but they will survive in dense soils. I dug a large hole for each plant, locating them about three feet apart. I set them in the soil as deep as they were in their nursery pots, watered well, gave them a good side dressing of compost, watered again and left them alone. I have never fertilized them except for watering in some new compost every spring. Last year I was too ill to garden, so they were completely on their own — no watering or compost or grooming of dead branches. They not only survived but produced a lush crop this summer. I’ve since learned that the honeyberry bushes I planted originated in Siberia and are known to be drought tolerant. Again, blind luck worked in my favor because a thirstier variety would have died from neglect.

Some varieties of honeyberry sprawl more than others, and your nursery should be able to tell you if the growth habit of your purchase is upright or sprawling. If they are uprights, then ask how tall they will get; mine are about four feet tall but some can reach six feet. The nursery should also be able to tell you if a variety is early or late flowering, so that the two different varieties you are going to plant are compatible in terms of timing of flowering — you want them to cross pollinate and they can’t do that if they set fruit at totally different times.

There are a few varieties that are reported to be self-pollinating, but they are not completely dependable. Things may change as these berries become more popular and more varieties are introduced, but for now assume you need to buy two different varieties in order to guarantee fruiting. The literature says it takes one to two years after planting for fruits to appear, but that was not my experience. I set them out in the fall and the next spring I had a small crop. It did produce better the second year and every year since, so be patient if you want a yield large enough for not only eating but making jams.

The shrubs are shallow rooted, so if you use a hoe to tackle your weeds be careful you don’t damage the roots of the shrub.

These berries turn darker as they mature, and their insides go from green to blue, but the best way to judge when they are ready is to eat one. If you get a sour or bitter taste, the berries are under ripe. Leave them alone for a week and check again. My berries are ready to pick by mid-July.

This year I harvested between four and five pounds of berries from each of my shrubs. They require so little attention and reliably produce 1-inch long berries that taste so good that I am going to add more bushes next spring. I urge you to devote some space to honeyberries; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.