THE EARLIEST FRUIT IN THE HOMESTEAD GARDEN
Among the many trees and bushes that produce fruit in our homestead garden, honeyberry bushes are by far the earliest. We first incorporated them into our outdoor gardens over five years ago. We had tried--without success--to grow blueberries for several years. Whether because of defective plants, soil pH, or our sometimes harsh climate, they never thrived. We turned our attention to honeyberries.
Honeyberry bushes (Lonicera caerulea), also known as haskaps, are native to several countries in the northern hemisphere, including Japan, Russia, and Canada. They have long been grown in northern regions where harsh climates make other berry crops impossible. They are common in Canada but much less familiar to growers south of the 49th parallel. As we researched blueberry alternatives, we were struck by the possibilities that honeyberry bushes had to offer. A native of the honeysuckle family, they thrive with abundant sunshine and can withstand severe winters. Honeyberries like rich soil with plenty of compost, but will grow in a variety of settings. When we put in the first bushes, we dug deep holes and buried pieces of rotting logs layered with compost (a technique known as hugelkultur) to enrich the soil and retain moisture. Those original five bushes convinced us that these bushes are a valuable asset and inspired the purchase of many others that are now scattered throughout our gardens. We have found them to be easy to grow, low maintenance, vigorous, and productive.
Honeyberries tolerate cold better than heat, so we make sure the roots are well mulched to help them withstand our hot, dry summers. While the leaves sometimes curl in late July and August, the plants always spring back as soon as cooler temperatures arrive.
Honeyberries bloom prior to all the other shrubs and trees on the homestead, starting as early as February. We eagerly watch for the first clusters of pale yellow buds, but are often caught by surprise, coming out to find them already in full bloom before it seems possible.
Honeyberries need a cross-pollinator to produce; we grow a collection of Borealis, Tundra, and Berry Blue. These cross-pollinate well and ripen at slightly different times, spreading out our harvest window. The first honeyberries will be ready to harvest at the beginning of June; others will continue ripening throughout the month. This puts them in the same harvest window with strawberries, but significantly before most other homestead fruits. The berries themselves are deep blue with a powdery exterior, much like a blueberry, but their shape is long and narrow. The flavor is rich and tart, like a cross between a blueberry and a huckleberry. They are high in a flavonoid compound called anthocyanin, making them beneficial for reducing inflammation, boosting cardiovascular and eye health, and inhibiting the formation of cancer cells. In addition to all of these medicinal benefits, they're delicious. They find their way into smoothies, fruit salads, sauces, and baked goods throughout the rest of the year.
This week the bushes are in full bloom, positively humming with the activity of early native pollinators. It's at times like this that we're intensely thankful for the wealth of native insects that live in this diverse ecosystem. The weather is not warm enough yet at our elevation for honeybees to provide the pollination we need, but bumblebees, mason bees, and many others will do the job with enthusiasm. These early blooms are a boon for them as well--a nectar source when few others are available. While it will be a few months before they ready to be harvested, the honeyberries are already off to a strong start in the homestead garden.