Haskap berries might be the next new superfood – but most people haven't heard of them.
That's because the berries, which are higher in antioxidants than blueberries, have traditionally been found only sporadically in the wild across Canada, growing mostly on the edge of wetlands.
But Bob Bors aims to change that.
The head of the fruit program at the University of Saskatchewan has been breeding haskap berries for 15 years.
Before that, he spent a few years studying them in order to pluck the most desirable characteristics from the species, which is native to northern Japan and Russia.
The plants are being grown in most provinces now, with more than two million sold, "which is pretty big for any plant breeding program," Bors says.
Haskap, meaning "little present on the end of a branch," is the name given by the Japanese. Other names include edible honeysuckle, blue honeysuckle and honeyberry.
The taste is distinct, says Alain Bosse, the Kilted Chef who promotes Maritime cuisine.
"It's got this raspberry, wild blueberry sort of undertone, and then all of a sudden there's that Honeycrisp [apple]," Bosse says from Pictou County, N.S. "It's got that real funky flavour profile," which he likens to bumbleberry, or mixed-berry pie.
Some people say the berries – which are dark blue, oval or cylindrical, and about 2.5 centimetres long – have a hint of elderberry, black currant or grape, and a tartness.
Liam Tayler, commercial director of Haskapa in Nova Scotia, says the company started with an acre of haskap plants in 2011 and has added more each year. Forty acres are nearing production and they plan to plant another 80 acres this year.
Being a small company, they currently freeze the berries for use in products that are sold in their retail store in Mahone Bay, N.S., as well as online.
"The nice thing about the haskap berry is it's incredibly versatile," Tayler says from Mahone Bay. "It has the capacity to be a wine, but it also has the capacity to be a health-food supplement" because of its antioxidants.
Haskapa has created juice, jams and condiments with haskap berries and infuses other products with the fruit including maple syrup, gin and vodka. They also make body scrub, bath salt, lip gloss and soap containing the haskap and plan to introduce powder for juice and wine in the next few months.
Tayler says Haskapa is working with Dalhousie University's agricultural experts in Truro, N.S., to optimize processing techniques to maximize the bioactive content of the products. One of Bors's doctoral students is also conducting research on the nutritional composition of the haskap.
"It is a fruit that makes a wine more like grape wine than any other fruit, so people in the far north like Saskatchewan, we can't really grow any wine grapes here, but you can grow haskap to make a nice wine or liqueur," says Bors, who says one of his favourite ways to eat the berries is in sauces and smoothies and with ice cream.
Because they're not as firm as blueberries, they can be mushy in pie, he notes.
Bosse adds Haskapa's jams to dishes and loves the maple syrup infused with the berries in his signature candied bacon.
He also uses them on their own when they're in season as a novel fruit.
"Quantities are not that high yet. [Haskapa are] still using pretty well everything they're producing in value-added products," Bosse says. "I think when production gets to the point where they can start selling them fresh, or even dry or frozen, the product's going to definitely take off."
Gardeners have also adopted the deciduous shrub for its ease of growth and attractiveness in the garden. It has creamy unscented flowers. During breeding, Bors selected against powdery mildew and leaned toward bigger, prettier leaves. The plants can also be grouped to form a nice-looking hedge.
"It doesn't sucker, so it's not like raspberries, saskatoons and cherries that will take over a garden and spread. Haskap is very polite," Bors says.