Edible Honeysuckle

When we think of honeysuckle, we tend to think about richly colored, fragrant flowers on beautiful vines like 'Scentsation' (Lonicera periclymenum), which blooms all summer long and perfumes the air with a fragrance better than anything found in a bottle.  

If you live in the Eastern United States, you most likely think of Lonicera japonica, the weedy, tenacious Japanese honeysuckle vine that can be found in just about every fence row. 

But who would have ever thought of honeysuckle as an edible fruit crop? Not me, that is, until I discovered sweetberry honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea, when visiting nurseries in Eastern Europe. Also known as the blue or edible honeysuckle, this little-known deciduous shrub is native to the colder, northern regions of Europe, Asia and even North America. Finding cultivated varieties in the former Eastern Bloc was not a total surprise: these countries had limited access to citrus and vitamin C during the Cold War, and as a result, they selected, bred, and developed a range of hardy fruit with high vitamin content. Mostly unfamiliar to Westerners, they grew and consumed berries such as Aronia (choke berry), Hippophae, (sea berry) and our newest discovery Lonicera caerulea, all of which are "superfruits" because of their extremely high vitamin and antioxidant content.

Lonicera caerulea produces edible fruit that looks like an elongated blueberry. 

After leaning about Lonicera caerulea and its potential, we set out to acquire as many cultivars as possible. We discovered One Green World, a small mail order nursery that offered an array of unusual fruit plants including Lonicera, which they marketed under the name "honey berries." I also met Dr. Bob Bors from the University of Saskatchewan who had an edible Lonicera breeding program, and we acquired his selections too. We purchased dried fruit, juice and jam, all of which were incredibly delicious, with a flavor best described as a tangy combination of raspberry, blueberry and raisins. Still later on a trip to Hokkaido, Japan, we were served ice cream with a haskap sauce (a type of Lonicera caerulea) that was pretty much the best food that has ever hit my taste buds. 

Haskap sauce on ice cream
It was clear that this little known honeysuckle shrub had incredible potential. First off, honeysuckles are very easy to grow. Anyone can grow this shrub. Unlike blueberry plants, it does not require any special soil or pH to grow successfully. Unlike grapes, the fruit skin dissolves in your mouth unnoticed. The fruit ripens in early summer, about the same time as strawberries, but is easy to pick without bending over. Unlike blackberries and raspberries, the plants have no thorns, and the seeds are so small you don't even notice them. On the downside, honeysuckle fruit is typically too soft to ship fresh to supermarkets, and the yields are not as high as you get with commercial blueberry crops. Until recently, the fruit also had a high degree of tartness, making it best reserved for sauces, jams, juices and drying, as opposed to eating fresh. The tartness can be largely eliminated if you understand how to identify ripe fruit: just because the fruit turns blue does not mean it's time to pick it. The fruit is ripe if you can easily remove it from the stem without tugging. If there is resistance, wait until it falls easily into your hand, otherwise you will be very disappointed with the taste.  

There is also a wide range of bitterness and sweetness depending upon the cultivar you grow. The vast majority of the Eastern European cultivars we have tasted tend to be on bitter side and are best suited for processing. Most of these cultivars are derived from Lonicera caerulea var. edulis, Lonicera caerulea var. villosa,  Lonicera caerulea var. pallasii, and Lonicera caerulea var. kamschatica. People in Eastern Europe typically call all these plants and their fruit kamschatica, zhimolost or zimolez. The vast majority of plants we initially acquired were of Eastern European origin.

Framtosel Krekci standing next to his new edible honeysuckle plant.  

What got us really excited about edible honeysuckle was a trip we made to the Czech Republic where we met Framtosel Krekci, a nurseryman and plant breeder who developed a new selection called Sugar Mountain® Blue. Skeptical, yet eager try a new selection, we sampled his fruit and discovered it was the sweetest we had ever tasted. We were so delighted, we worked over his hedge until every single berry was gone. Not only was the fruit sweet, it was also very large. While the typical fruit size ranges from 12 to 15mm in length, his variety had fruit in the 18 to 20mm range.    

Sugar Mountain Blue

My excitement and appreciation for edible honeysuckle reached new levels when I got a phone call from Dr. Maxine Thompson, a retired fruit breeder from Oregon State University. Maxine had been breeding edible honeysuckle for years, but had been working strictly with Japanese haskap, Lonicera caerulea var. emphyllocalyx, which is native to 
Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. The advantage of pure Japanese haskap is that the fruit is larger and the plants bloom later. The flowers appear as much as four to six weeks later than Eastern European varieties, making them less susceptible to frost damage, more attractive to pollinators, and better suited to warmer climates. Maxine's extensive fruit breeding experience had paid dividends when it came to haskap: her breeding lines boasted substantial improvements in both fruit size and yields. She takes detailed data, such as brix counts, so that she can maximize sweetness and other desirable attributes. Her haskap breeding program was clearly light years ahead of all others.    
Dr. Maxine Thompson 

Yezberry™ Maxie haskaps are nearly the size and shape of olives

After multiple visits to Maxine's breeding plot and sampling dozens of selections, we chose four of the sweetest and largest fruited plants and named them Yezberry™ haskaps. Yezberry refers to the island of Hokkaido, which was once called Yez or Yezo Island. It was very important to Maxine that we distinguish her breeding lines as pure haskap (Lonicera caerulea var. emphyllocalyx) originating from Hokkaido because of their unique qualities, and because, according to Maxine, growers were misleadingly selling Eastern European varieties as haskaps, which they are not.  

Thus far we have introduced two of her haskaps, Yezberry™ Solo™ and Maxie.  Yezberry Maxie has the largest fruit yet: its berries are olive shaped, with very good sweetness and flavor. Yezberry Solo has large, plump fruit with very good sweetness and flavor, superior yields, and it is apomictic, meaning it will make fruit without cross pollination from another variety. Though Yezberry Solo does not require a pollinator to get fruit, you will get larger fruit and higher yields if you grow another Yezberry haskap in close proximity.        

Yezberry™ Maxie and Yezberry Solo Japanese haskaps

The future for edible honeysuckle is bright. It is very cold hardy and easy to grow. The fruit has higher levels of vitamins C, A, and E than an orange, and three times the antioxidant level of blackberries. New breeding and the introduction of new haskap cultivars have brought us better tasting, sweeter and larger berries and plants with wider adaptability and higher yields. It is the perfect berry plant for growers selling u-pick or at local farmers markets. Best of all, it's just good fun to grow fresh, tasty fruit at home that does not require special care, soil amendments or pesticides. So hopefully, in the near future, when you think about honeysuckle, you'll think about how great it would be to mix some in your yogurt or put them on top of your vanilla ice cream. That's what I'm thinking. Yum.   


De Boomkwekerij

It has been a busy year of plant hunting. So busy, I've hardly had the time to write any blog posts. This year I have traveled to Russia, Germany, the Netherlands (twice), Iowa, Cape Cod & Martha's Vinyard, Maryland (DC), Kentucky, Tennessee, Oregon, North Carolina and I'm off to Japan in less than a week. I hope that things will slow down a bit so that I can share some of the new plants I've encountered. Until then, I am going to share with you copy of an interview that appeared in the lastest edition of De Boomkwekerij, the Dutch equivalent of American Nurseryman or Nursery Management. The interview was done by Arno Engels while I was attending the Plantarium nursery show in Boskoop last August. If you can't read Dutch, Arno's translation can be found at the bottom of the page.  



Tim Wood, American expert in new varieties: 'Thanks to breeding the assortment can always be better' 

Text and Translation by Arno Engels

In recent years many new shrubs from Spring Meadow Nursery showed up at Plantarium [nursery show in the Netherlands]. Almost every introduction wins at the show. For example Buddleja Blue Chip won gold in 2009, and Buddleja Lilac Chip was the best novelty of 2011. In future more winners are to be expected. Tim Wood, product development manager at Spring Meadow and Proven Winners: "In America breeding is done more than ever."

ARNO: What is your main goal with new varieties?

TIM: "To make breeding successfull for everyone in the market. Because everyone needs to be successful on new varieties: the breeder, grower, retailer and consumer. When a new variety has proven in the market with higher sales, this helps the breeder to continue breeding and to come up with another variety."

ARNO: Is breeding endlessly?

TIM: "Yes, because there is no such thing as a perfect plant. You can always improve. Sometimes you hear people complain that there are so many varieties; they wonder whether we still need another Hydrangea, Buddleja or Weigela. Yes, we need it, if it is better. There is no shortage of new plants, but a shortage of great new plants."

ARNO: How starts breeding in your opinion?

TIM: "With the finding of an idea. One of the advantages of traveling over the world is, as you get ideas. For example, you see a plant at a trade show, in a nursery or in an arboretum, and you think about possible improvements and several chances. For example, the idea for our Lo & Behold Buddleja is originated from the dwarf Buddleja 'White Ball' [a plant that originaites] from Boskoop. We wanted to have some [dwarf] Buddleja also in several other colors. About fifteen years ago, Dr. Werner started breeding them."

ARNO: How do you know if something new is all right?

TIM: "At Spring Meadow, we use a list of criteria that a new variety must meet, according to us. The basis of that list is set up by JC Raulston, a botanist at North Carolina State University. He traveled the world to find new plants and bring them to nurseries. A new plant is only good when you can grow it well, he thought. But you need also to sell it well.

First criterion for us is: a new variety should be good for making cuttings. If we have to graft, we don't grow the plant, because it takes too much time. And people think that you can multiply rapidly in tissue culture, but that is not [always] so. For each variety you first need to figure out a separate tissue culture formula. This can take time.
It is also important if we can make a good container product. Most plants are now being sold in container, and for a successful sale the plant also has to look good. There are now different criteria for new plants, than they used to be for plants with [when plants were sold as] bare-root."

ARNO:Do you take effects of climate change in a judgement of new plants?

TIM: "I do not think you can anticipate through breeding on climate change. That just happens and plants [and our mix] will adapt. In California, for example, it will be drier, so the demand for more drought tolerant plants certainly will increase. We all want to grow what we cannot grow. At Spring Meadow everything we grow in greenhouses, because we ship our young plants to every state of America, which can be warm and cold conditions. For example, we also grow Lagerstroemia and Loropetalum. Here in Michigan, it would be too cold outside for these shrubs, but they grow out very well in a state like Florida."

ARNO: Are phytosanitary issues making developing of new varieties difficult?

TIM: "Of course. You can breed for disease resistance, but there is always the risk of organisms that can damage the plant. But I do think: people lining up phytosanitary rules, do not always understand our business. For example, I can not import Hibiscus syriacus as a result of the Asian longhorn beetle, not even small cuttings, while that beetle can enter our country with wood packaging. And a disease such as Xylella has never be found in Michigan, because it is much too cold for it. What is an issue in America that we can respond effectively, are invasive plants. In Oregon, it is illegal to plant Buddleja davidii, since this species is invasive. But our Buddleja is allowed to plant, because it has sterile flowers, so it cannot spread. We needed an independent party to validate that.

So breeders can solve problems with invasive plants. But also problems with diseases. Cornus florida is for instance prone to mildew, but not if it is crossed with Cornus kousa."

ARNO: Many companies hold novelties exclusive, by limit the licenses. And Spring Meadow?

TIM: "We are holding new plants not exclusive, there are only in the United States and Canada eighty licensed growers of our plants. I hunt for new plants, but I hunt also people who those plants breed and who are able to grow them under license. In Europe it goes through our agent Valkplant from Boskoop. They do a great job. Spring Meadow is not interested in selling plants in Europe; that's what our licensed growers do.
Several licensed growers, especially in North America, are also our competitors. That's okay, because to us it's important that we create demand for our plants, through marketing. And then, the supply should not be limited. Many people think they can negotiate a higher price for a novelty, by keeping supply limited. We do the exact opposite. So everyone will [have access to new plants and can benefit financially]."

ARNO:America has more consumer brands of garden plants than Europe. Is marketing in America easier?

TIM: "The advantage of America is that we have [essentially] one language, English. That makes communication easier. In Europe there are many languages, but despite that succesfully branding of garden plants is possible. You have to do more work for it. In that respect, David Austin Roses for example did a good job; everyone knows this brand."

ARNO: Spring Meadow partners for the marketing with Proven Winners. Why?

TIM: "Because Proven Winners is a wonderful brand that many Americans recognize. A few years ago Monrovia and Jackson & Perkins were the best known plant brands in America, but now Proven Winners has a very large consumer following. The brand was created for bedding plants. Each year about 120 million annuals from Proven Winners are being sold, that means also 120 million impressions of the brand on the market!

Annuals are sold in the spring, our shrubs all year round. We have therefore entered into a partnership with Proven Winners [annual growers], so that we can benefit from each other. Spring Meadow sold plants at first under our brand ColorChoice, now it is under Proven Winners ColorChoice. Three years ago, Walters Gardens, one of the largest growers of perennials in America also joined us [Proven Winners], so that we can further expand Proven Winners. Everyone with its own expertise."

ARNO: Are Proven Winners 'proven winners' in the market, or have they been proven previously in independent research?

TIM: "Proven Winners are plants that must be successful for the customer. This value for the US market has already been extensively tested in many locations: at Spring Meadow, other nurseries and universities in different climates - because everywhere the plants should perform well in a garden. Via Valkplant our plants are also being tested in Europe, in the Netherlands, and also for example in England and France.

Independent research in America it is slower than in Europe. If American trials are completed, the tested varieties are already old, whilst new improved plants are already available. It takes on average ten years before a new shrub is bred, selected, tested and marketed. But in America breeding is more than ever going on. On woody shrubs breeding is almost looking like breeding Petunia. So much is going on in the assortment.

How long research takes, it depends on what you are testing. For example if you test for disease free, the research can be long. But when you test on leaf color, then it does not last long. You see, for example, quickly if you get leaf burn by the sun."

ARNO: You are looking for new plants and winners, but is it true that you also breed yourself?

TIM: "Yes, at Spring Meadow we began to realize that we can also breed some ourselves. For example, we saw what Terra Nova Nurseries did with Heuchera: thru breeding add many new varieties in the range. We have built up collections of almost all species that are commercially, mainly deciduous shrubs. We have all the plants already. That is including some 100 Hibiscus syriacus.  If we breed with a plant that was brought to us by an outside breeder and introduce it, we make a point to pay that breeder royalties on the new plant, eventhough we did the breeding. That is the case with Little Lime Hydrangea. We used ‘Limelight’ as a parent to breed it so we feel the breeder should share in the royalty. Legally we don’t have to do this, but it is the right thing to do. 

ARNO: Will there be more new varieties of Buddleja?

TIM: "I do not know yet. This year we had [introduced], for example, Blue Chip Jr. new at Plantarium, a smaller version of Blue Chip. Growers told us sometimes branches from Blue Chip break during shipment. Blue Chip Jr. is better for shipping, and this Buddleia also blooms earlier in the season, so that's good for sales."

ARNO: Why do you launch new varieties at Plantarium, and not elsewhere in Europe?

TIM: "I think Plantarium is the best show in the world to introduce woody species. IPM [Essen, Germany]? That show is in the winter when deciduous shrubs do not look good. We visit Plantarium since fifteen years. Our first contact with Europe was also in Boskoop: Herman Geers had bred Weigela 'Alexandra', we first marketed this one in America, and about the same time we [introduced] Hydrangea 'Limelight' by Pieter Zwijnenburg jr. Therefore we say in America: Boskoop [Netherlands] is the center of the nursery world."