In his book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, the American author Lee Reich describes the taste of saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) as ‘juicy and sweet, with the richness of sweet cherry along with a hint of almond’. Not only tasty to eat, he writes, but ideally suited to an edible landscape enjoyed for ‘their beauty and bounty’ with clouds of white blossom that ‘appear to have caught delicate white veils dropped from the sky.’ Berries appear in June, hence their other name juneberries in their native Canada and United States, to be followed by glorious autumn foliage of ‘shades of purple, orange and yellow’. In the UK we know well one Amelanchier species - the ornamental snowy mespelis, Amelanchier canadensis - but appear never to have investigated the saskatoon, Amelanchier alnifolia, as a fruiting shrub. Saskatoons are a commerical crop in Canada and one that is attracting considerable interest because the berries are high in anti-oxidants, like blueberries, which they resemble in appearance.
John Stoa, a former professional fruit grower and now full time artist, fell in love with this fruit when on holiday in Canada after visiting a pick-your-own saskatoon farm outside the city of Saskatoon, the capital of Saskatchewan. John is harvesting his own saskatoons in Scotland and now tell us how easy they are to grow and good to eat.
The saskatoon fruit is delicious and, in my opinion, tastes very similar to the blueberry. In Scotland it fruits in July with up to ten pounds of blue black, sweet fruits per bush when mature. The saskatoon shrub, Amelanchier alnifolia, is native to North West America growing from Alaska to California in open woodland, hillsides, and banks of streams on ground ranging from dry rocky soils in full sun to moist deep soils. Native Americans used the berries as a major food source for hundreds of years and now that its health benefits have been realised the demand for this fruit vastly exceeds its supply.
The berries can be eaten fresh during the picking season, which starts with me in early July and can last for four weeks depending upon the weather. They make an excellent fruit salad combined with soft fruits, or cooked as a compôte with rhubarb and other fruits. Saskatoons can be added to breakfast cereals and to yoghurt for a smoothie, or used as pie fillings and a topping, or sandwich, for a sponge cake. Alternatively the berries may be preserved as jams, jellies, even a wine and they freeze well for future use. Nutritionally saskatoons have an abundance of anthocyanins, which may help prevent heart disease, strokes, cancer, cataracts and other chronic illnesses associated with ageing. In their anthocyanin content saskatoons are similar to blueberries, but with higher levels of iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Saskatoons are very easy to grow, thrive on most soils and in full sun or partial shade. Unlike blueberries they do not require an acid soil. The bushes grow quite thickly and sucker easily if taller branches are pruned down to ground level to encourage fresh young growth. They require no pruning other than removal of any shoots too tall for comfortable picking after six or more years: cut out any tall shoots from the centre right down to ground level. Give a light fertiliser dressing each spring in the early years and the bush will remain productive for 30 to 50 years.
Bushes needed to be planted about six feet apart or, if you want them to grow into each other and form a hedge, then set the plants three feet apart: prepare the planting hole with some compost and give a dressing of fertiliser. The only pests likely to bother them are birds which love the fruit so netting is essential on a small scale. Young plants may suffer leaf spot and mildew but mature plants are usually too strong to be affected.
Most commercial varieties in Canada are grown from seed as saskatoons comes very true to type, so if a seed crop of, for example, Smokey is collected from the middle of an isolated plantation the plants will be Smokey, and the level of variation very minimal. However, several producers are micro-propagating stock which is 100% true to type, but some growers have concerns about this type of plant as they feel it in the long term it may not be as healthy as seed grown plants.
Smoky and Theissen are two well known varieties and I grow one row of each, true to type, but produced from seed. However, because they are adjacent to each other, I cannot claim to grow these varieties true to type from their seeds as there will be some cross pollination. All my plants will have traits from these two varieties. In fact, I find no difference whatsoever in them other than one crops about four days before the other. Sometimes I find Smokey a bit better than Theissen, but then a few days later the reverse is true. Once these are taken up by commercial growers, I am hopeful the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee will carry out some variety trials as there are many well worth exploring to see which ones are best suited to the UK climate and soils.
I have been growing saskatoons for over seven years and the past year harvested my heaviest crop, despite a cool, wet summer and a previous very severe winter. Saskatoons seem to like this extreme climate.
Plants available from: http://www.johnstoa.co.uk/saskatoon.htm
To comment on this article please visit our blog.