Farming a wild food: Saskatoon berries

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC.

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC.

If you’ve never heard of Saskatoon berries, you’re not alone. For one thing, this Canadian berry goes by many different names. Secondly, they’re just not very popular. At least, not yet.

I know about Saskatoon berries because I’m from Alberta. Outside of the Prairie Provinces, few people know that they even exist. This is because, unlike strawberries, farmers only started growing Saskatoons commercially in the 1970s. That hasn’t given them much time to develop a market.

Let’s get better acquainted with this berry. After all, it’s an important part of Canadian history.

Rose red

Saskatoon berries look like big blueberries, but they are actually more closely related to apples! Mind blown! Saskatoons belong of the rose family, Rosaceae, while blueberries hang out in the Ericaceae family. In fact, many other fruits like apples, peaches, plums and cherries belong to Rosaceae.

True Canadians

Saskatoon berry bushes are really strong, so strong that wind storms can’t blow them over. This is essential when you live in the prairies where there is nothing to block the wind. European settlers used this strong wood to make umbrella handles and fish poles. I guess you don’t want your umbrella bending in a windstorm!

Saskatoon bushes grow underground using suckers which pop out a thicket of bushes. They don’t mind the cold either, and can stand winters of -60 C! Brrr! No wonder they’re found all over Canada.

How sweet it is

There are 10-15 species of Amelanchier (the Saskatoon berry genus) native to Canada. All of these species have edible berries that are red-purple, and sweet and juicy.

Amelanchier berries are sweeter than blueberries and raspberries, with a sugar content of 20%. However, not all plants are created equal, and the taste of the berry will have a lot to do with what is in the soil and how much rain they’ve had. The berries I picked at the top of the plant were kind of sun-dried. It was 30 degrees, after all!

Humans aren’t the only animal to snack on Amelanchier berries. Squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers and waxwings all like these sweet berries. Bushes are also home sweet home for cardinals and robins.

Humans may like the berries, but bees like the blossoms! The white flowers pop out early, from March to June, making them perfect breakfast food for bees just waking up from hibernation.

Fur trade energy bars

Saskatoon berries have been around for hundreds of years, and the Aboriginal peoples of Western Canada took full advantage of them. They ate the berries raw, or preserved them by cooking them and then drying them in brick-like cakes that could be reconstituted as needed.

When Europeans came to trade Saskatoons were valuable trade items. Mixed with buffalo meat and fat to make pemmican, they became the original energy bar. Fur traders lived on this stuff when they were travelling.
Saskatoon berries were also eaten by early settlers in Western Canada. Sometimes the only fruit available, and were particularly good at keeping farmers alive during the 1930s drought.

Mini Pharmacies

Saskatoons are a great source of vitamin C and minerals like iron and copper. No scurvy here! They also have lot of antioxidants that help our immune system, twice as many as blueberries do. Due to their large edible seeds, Saskatoons also have twice as much fibre as blueberries. Poor blueberries! But blueberries have an edge on the market.

Interestingly, Saskatoon berry seeds are poisonous just like an apple’s, so don’t eat buckets of them! If you cook or dry them, the poison disappears.

Domestication how-to

In the 1970s Saskatoon berries started being grown commercially in Canada. They are in the early stages of domestication and farmers still have a lot to learn about diseases and pests. Most farms let customers to do their own picking. However, a few use machines designed for harvesting blueberries.

Most farms are in the Prairie Provinces, where Saskatoons are the second largest commercial crop.

Who can say whether this emerging industry will bloom? Only time will tell. In the meantime, get out to a U-pick and try some for yourselves!


Click to access saskatoon.pdf

A berry by any other name would taste as sweet: Sneaky Saskatoons

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum...why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum…why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Okay, get ready for a rant. A rant against common names. Common names are the handles most people use to describe plants and animals, like daisy or robin. Scientists prefer to use Latin names like Bellis perennis and Turdus migratorius. I think you’ll understand why in a second.

But before I rant, I need to tell you a story.

A few weeks ago I wrote about strawberries. Strangely enough, then I wanted to eat strawberries. And not imported ones from California. I wanted local strawberries fresh off the bush that still had bugs on them. So I ended up at a U-pick farm outside Shawinigan, Quebec.

To my great disappointment, there were no strawberries to be found! They had all been picked the previous day by hungry customers. However, the owner told us (in French, bien sûr) that “les amélanches” were ready for picking, and urged us to try one from her basket. Cautiously, we popped one of the blue-purple berries in our mouths. We were not disappointed. Whatever these berries were, they tasted like sweet blueberries and had a great texture. Soon we were ripping them (carefully) off the 7-foot tall bushes. Some of the berries even ended up in our buckets. Compared to picking raspberries and strawberries, picking these was a breeze! But what the heck were they?

I turned to the internet for an answer. It turns out that “les amélanches” are Saskatoon berries. Before my berry-picking experience, I had never encountered raw Saskatoon berries. The most common uses are baked in pies and pastries, or made into jams and syrups. I can attest that Saskatoon berry syrup on pancakes is darn delicious. But the raw berries are even better!

As I shared my divine berry picking experience on Facebook, I discovered out that many other people had picked Saskatoon berries, but under a different name. It was hard to talk about the berries, because everyone called them something different! What was going on?

As it turns out, Saskatoon berries go by many different names. Serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum and (my personal favorite) chuckley pear! Whew! That’s a lot of names to go on a passport! And kind of ridiculous if you ask me. Do I have to memorize all of these common names just to have an intelligent conversation about berry picking?

Sasktaoon Berries chillin' on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Sasktaoon Berries chillin’ on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

In Latin, the plant is called Amelanchier alnifolia. One name. Okay, a complicated name with lots of vowels, but still easier than memorizing 13 different common names. It was this problem of too many names that inspired Carl Linnaeus to give every organism a single universal name. And that’s just what he did. Now scientists all around the world can talk about Amelanchier alnifolia without being confused. It’s called the Latin name. Or scientific name. Or binomen. Okay, that’s a little ironic.

Where did all these names for Saskatoon berry come from, anyway? Well, they’re found from BC to Western Ontario and also in the Yukon. The different populations of people who lived in these areas probably ‘discovered’ them independently and named them different things.

Speaking of names, there is a city in Saskatchewan named Saskatoon. So Saskatoon berries were named after the city, right? Wrong! The city was actually named after the berry. Apparently there were oodles of bushes in that area. Yum yum yum! The name ‘Saskatoon’ is probably an English mangling of the Blackfoot or Cree name.

I wished I lived in a city named Strawberry. Or Raspberry, for that matter.

Okay, thus ends my rant against common names. They are great in most cases, but if you want to be precise, the scientific name is the way to go.

Want to learn more about the mysterious Saskatoon berry? More history, facts and revelations to come next week!


Click to access saskatoon.pdf

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow lab bench to park bench on

Previous Posts

August 2020


%d bloggers like this: