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

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