I chuckle when I see blueberry starts in the local garden centers. Stores sell them. People buy and plant them. Thus begins the slow, agonizing death of another blueberry plant.
Simply put, blueberries will not grow in our high pH soils with high pH water. I will acknowledge that they are possible to grow under strict conditions. If you’re not devoted to investing extreme tender loving care into the process, blueberries are not for you in southeast Idaho.
Several years ago, I heard of a blueberry alternative that will grow in our cold climate with high pH soils. It’s called haskap or honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea). This member of the honeysuckle family is native to Canada, Asia and Northern Europe. Only recently have they been selectively bred to develop cultivars more suitable for domestic production.
Honeyberries are extremely cold-hardy (Zone 2) and produce relatively early in the season (late June/early July). The big benefit to us is that they tolerate a wide variety of soils and withstand our high pH soil.
About six years ago, we finally acquired our first plants. We purchased four plants: two Aurora, one Borealis and one Tundra cultivar. The Tundra died, but I don’t hold that against the variety as I believe it was simply circumstantial.
The first berries were produced in the second year. I must admit, I found the flavor a disappointment that first year. Later, we learned that the flavor was decidedly better when we waited longer to harvest-about two weeks after they first turn blue. While some people liken the taste to a blueberry, I find they have a flavor all their own. We particularly appreciate their ripening before anything else in the yard. Most of our harvest is still seldom fully-ripe due to familial competition for the first fruit of the season. We’ve also learned that netting is essential for keeping birds away.
If your interest is piqued by the prospect of growing a novel fruit product, give honeyberries a try. I cannot answer what the ‘best’ variety is for you. Some are sweeter, others more tart. All are likely to grow in our conditions, but local research is in short supply. In addition, new varieties are being developed continually.
It is crucial to know that honeyberries require a different cultivar that blooms at the same time for cross-pollination. In other words, plant more than one variety and select those varieties based on recommendations from the supplier. When I first heard of honeyberries, an online company called HoneyberryUSA was the only source I knew of. There are now a host of online suppliers and I’ve even seen them in select local garden centers.
If you would like more information on honeyberries, Montana State University has research program to learn from.
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