Haskap Berries: Flavorful Superfood

Haskap Berries—the superfood that's easy to grow
Photo courtesy Legacy Farms, Sandpoint, Idaho

By DIANNA TROYER

Serendipity struck a small northern Idaho farm a decade ago when two friends took a risk and planted a relatively new berry to the Northwest—a haskap. The nutrient-dense haskap resembles a squashed blueberry and tastes like a cross between a blueberry and huckleberry.

“I was searching for an organic, low maintenance perennial crop,” said Karen Forsythe, co-owner with Julie Conlan of Legacy Farms near Sandpoint.

At the same time in 2009, Dr. Dan Barney, a University of Idaho horticulture professor, needed a home for haskap varieties he had raised. As superintendent of the university’s Sandpoint Research and Extension Center, he hoped the cultivars he had grown would continue to be developed after the university decided to close the center in 2009.

“I’d taken a class with Dr. Barney and kept in touch with him about his projects,” Forsythe said.

Their gamble paid off. Legacy Farms is the only Idaho nursery licensed to propagate and sell the university’s varieties of Japanese haskaps, also known as Honeyberries. The university’s haskaps, varieties grown along coastal Japan, came from Oregon State University through a cooperative agreement 20 years ago.

Forsythe’s customers at Di Luna’s, her restaurant in Sandpoint, crave their crop.

“Haskaps have been a big hit,” Forsythe said. “We use them in baked goods, smoothies, and mimosas. We named our mimosas the Sweet Tart.”

Forsythe said the super fruit is gaining popularity because the berries are richer in polyphenols than tea, coffee, and red wine and have five times the amount of phenols compared to blueberries.

“It’s a formidable antioxidant superfood,” she said.

A member of the honeysuckle family, haskaps are native to northern boreal forests in North America, Asia, and Europe. They grow on a hardy bush, similar to a blueberry.

The name is derived from the Japanese word haskapu, which translates to “little gifts on the ends of the branches.” The Ainu people of Northern Japan referred to them as “berry of long life and good vision.”

Hardy and disease-resistant, haskap bushes can be grown in soils ranging in pH from 5 to 8.5. A flexible plant, they grow in full sun to partial shade and develop strong roots. They need a deep watering every five to seven days. To maintain them, bushes can be pruned like a blueberry.

The friends began growing haskaps at an age when most people consider retiring. Conlan said plant propagation fascinates her.

“I love working with plants,” Conlan said. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to create haskap bushes. I love the challenge of not just growing plants, but growing a business as well.”

Self-employed most of her adult life, Conlan said she has a tendency to turn her hobbies into businesses.

“I love to grow fruits and vegetables and used to sell at the farmers market in Sandpoint, so this new venture was just a natural transition from hobby to the next level.” 

As she has aged, Conlan has realized a key life hack—finding good help.

“The challenge is to do things smarter and find the right people to help us do the things we can’t physically do any more,” she said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some great workers to help out when we need them.”

To establish their haskap nursery, they plowed up 1.5 acres of a hay field, put down a weed barrier, erected a deer fence, and planted 10 to 12 plants of 43 different varieties. Then they waited, watched, and tasted.

“Three years later, we selected five varieties that we thought tasted best and would work for home and commercial use,” Forsythe said. “The university trademarked the name BonnerBlue, and we have an exclusive contract with them to propagate and sell these varieties.”

According to Forsythe, BonnerBlue berries not only thrive in our climate, but they  also taste good and are gaining in popularity.

“After going huckleberry picking this year, haskaps are much easier to pick,” she said, “and I think they taste better.”

Tips about raising haskaps and the suggested varieties for ideal pollination may be found at legacyhaskaps.com. ISI