If you’ve ever walked through the woods near McCall, ID, you’ve probably seen several honeysuckle varieties growing wild. The distinctive red twinberry, or Utah Honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis) looks like two translucent fish eggs glued together. The black twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) looks like an entirely different species, with shiny, round black berries that look like they are nestled in red tissue paper. When I first moved here I always wondered if they were edible. According the Oregon State University data, they ARE, but you wouldn’t eat them voluntarily. They were used in lotions and potions…the Utah honeysuckle for colds and sore throats, the bitter black honeysuckle for digestive problems, contraception, and dye.
There IS an edible berry in the honeysuckle family, and as you might assume, it is well-suited to McCall. The honeyberry is cold hardy to zone 2, and forms a long berry that resembles a blueberry. The taste is a little more tart…at least the ones we sampled from the bushes at a local nursery! We both thought they were delicious. There are several cultivars, but they will generally be about 5 ft tall and wide.
Honeyberries, or haskaps, are native to Russia and, like Russians, can be hardy to -40 F or lower. This spring their unprotected blooms were lightly frosted and they still set fruit. They need a pollinator, but most varieties will do in this climate. (There are early and late blooming varieties, pay attention if you are in a warmer climate.) We currently have 5 bushes, Borealis and Cinderella varieties.
Last year we planted tiny bushes in May. They were the least successful plants in our whole garden…they did so badly we thought there was something wrong with the soil. We dug them up and heavily amended their bed, then replanted. Still, those little guys refused to thrive, even though everything you read about honeyberries says they grow in any soil and any pH. They stayed so small we could barely see them.
Honeyberries seemed like such a great fit for McCall, so their performance was really disappointing. Five feet away, the gooseberries were killing it, tripling in size in one summer. We decided we would move them in the spring, or make a raised bed, or test the soil for bath salts.
The heavy snow finally melted in the spring of 2016, revealing damaged fruit trees, bent raspberries, and flattened honeyberries and gooseberries. We carefully dug the plants out from their straw-mulch-and-snow prison. Luckily, there was no vole damage. I trimmed the obviously bent branch ends from the little flattened berry bushes. And when spring hit…they grew like crazy. One bush in particular. A paper from the U of Saskatchewan explains that honeyberries are commonly found in low-lying wet areas with clay soil, and it may be better to plant them in the fall. The bushes really took off in cool wet spring soil. If you have low-lying areas on your property that stay wet into the spring, honeyberries might like it there.
Honeyberries produce fruit on one-year growth. Based on their spindly nature we didn’t expect them to produce any fruit. However, several plants put on white bell-shaped flowers. As promised, honeyberries bloom well before strawberries and raspberries, and their blooms are surprisingly hardy. The photo below shows one honeyberry with open blooms that was hit with several nights of light frost. They didn’t have any protection besides the straw mulch still around the base. It didn’t affect the plant at all! Honeyberries really do seem to be a plant-and-forget perennial. One source claims honeyberry blossoms are hardy to 20 degrees, and the plant itself can withstand temperatures to -55 F. Again…Russian berry plants. I don’t think we’ll be able to test that, but high mountain spring nights can drop below freezing well into May.
We’re watching the tiny green fruit with great anticipation. The Borealis variety is producing fruit. It blooms slightly later than the Cinderella variety, so it will be interesting to see if the Cinderella variety is too early for our area or if they were just too immature this year. There is a chart of some of the different types here and here, and there are lots of options for later-blooming varieties. As of June 11, 2016, there are two ripening berries at the bottom of the plant. One of them looks like it had an exploratory bite taken out of it, but honeyberries in general do not have many pests or diseases.
What have we done for honeyberry care? Not much. The heavy clay bed was amended with half-decomposed horse manure and mycorrhizae. The plants were mulched with straw, additional mulch was added in late fall. We added a little organic fertilizer mix (Azomite, fish meal, etc) in the spring and sprayed the leaves with worm compost tea. We’ve never had to spray the plants, and the leaves seem to be free of damage.
We’re hoping the honeyberries continue to grow this summer! Honeyberry plants can produce 2-10 lbs of fruit when they are mature, which means we could be dealing with 10-50 lbs of almost labor-free fruit in a few years!