Blending form and function in great taste and style, the versatile Saskatoon berry has an impressive résumé – showy, fragrant, white flowers in spring followed by plump, juicy berries in summer and brilliant fall foliage. What’s more, Saskatoon fruit is loaded with antioxidants and contains higher levels of protein and fibre than most other fruits.
Native to western North America, Amelanchier alnifolia is known by a number of common names, including Saskatoon berry, serviceberry, Juneberry, sugar pear, and Indian pear. Its range stretches from Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories all the way to California, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Saskatoon is valued for its fruit and for its more modern use as an ornamental shrub or hedge. Tall and upright with spreading forms, shrubs can range from 1.8 to 4.5 metres in height and 1.2 to 1.8 metres in width. Clusters of white, five-petalled blossoms appear in early spring, before the leaves are fully out. Around late June or July, shrubs produce a profusion of sweet, flavourful fruit. Ending the year with a splendid display of bright-orange fall colour, the Saskatoon makes an exceptional addition to the landscape.
The Saskatoon is actually not a berry but a pome, like the apple and the pear. Though similar to the blueberry in the size, texture and almondy-sweet flavour of its fruit, the Saskatoon grows in a much wider range of soils and climates. Unlike the acid-loving blueberry, the cold-hardy and drought-resistant Saskatoon will grow reasonably well in alkaline soils with a pH of up to 7.5, making it an excellent blueberry substitute for Okanagan gardeners. A superb cold-weather fruit, the Saskatoon delights northern gardeners with its hardiness – to Zone 1.
Saskatoons don’t like wet feet, so drainage is important. The ideal location is a gentle slope with full sun and good air circulation and water drainage. As with most native plants, Saskatoons do not suffer from many diseases and may be grown with little trouble throughout B.C.
The Saskatoon may be used as a specimen or lawn tree, in border masses, or in naturalistic groupings. Though self-fertile, Saskatoons seem to be more productive when grown in groups. However, if you don’t have the space, a single shrub planted as an ornamental should still produce two to four-and-a-half kilograms of fruit (around three or four pies).
Propagation and Planting
Saskatoons may be propagated from seed, root sprouts (suckers), or tissue culture. To collect seed, gather the fruit as soon as it ripens and clean the fruit pulp from the seed. Sow clean seeds in fall; germination will occur the following spring.
Collect plant material in early spring when plants are dormant. Dig out young suckers, keeping as many fine roots as possible. Cut back tops to a height of five centimetres, plant, and keep well watered.
For hedgerows, plant Saskatoons one-half metre to one metre apart, with four to six metres between rows. Soil should be free of perennial weeds and tilled to a depth of at least 15 centimetres.
Keep soil evenly moist while establishing young plants. Once established, plants require little extra care, though a moderate amount of supplemental water can aid in the production of plump, juicy fruit.
On average, Saskatoons require 15 to 25 millimetres of water per week, though this amount may vary greatly depending on soil type and weather conditions. Hot and dry climates, such as in the Okanagan, increase the need for water, while the cooler, wetter climate of the coast necessitates less watering.
To feed Saskatoons, measure out 150 millilitres of 23-23-0 or 27-14-0 fertilizer and apply under branches and to 30 centimetres around each plant. Fertilize between flowering and harvest time.
Plants begin to bear fruit at three to four years old, reaching full maturity and production in six to seven years. Fruit is produced on the previous year’s growth and on older wood. In general, young, vigorous branches yield the best fruit.
Major pruning is usually not required until plants are six to seven years old. Pruning should be done in early spring, after the danger of severe cold weather is past but before plants begin to grow. Cutting off lower branches is recommended, as is thinning the centre to keep plants open. Shrubs should ideally be kept to a height of two metres.
After plants are six to seven years old, prune out a few five- to seven-year-old branches annually. This will encourage new and vigorous shoot growth. Revitalize older shrubs by cutting them back to the ground, allowing new sprouts to grow.
Berries may be harvested when they turn from pink to deep purple. Saskatoons ripen fairly evenly, allowing most of your crop to be picked at one time.
Saskatoon fruit is delicious fresh, in pies and desserts, canned, frozen, or made into wine, juice, or preserves. Wherever in the province you live, a crop of sweet, juicy Saskatoons can be yours for the picking.
Honeywood: This vigorous late-blooming variety features large, flavourful fruit with few seeds. It yields well within three to four years.
Northline: This upright, spreading shrub grows to 2.5 metres and produces plentiful fruit within three years. Large, sweet berries boast excellent flavour.
Pembina: Slightly less productive than other varieties, Pembina reaches three metres high and bears large, flavourful berries. It produces few root sprouts.
Smoky: Upright, spreading Smoky suckers freely and grows to three metres high. While smaller than other varieties, its fleshy fruit is excellent for jams and jellies.
Thiessen: This large shrub can reach 4.5 metres in height. Berries are big, averaging 1.25 centimetres in diameter, with a milder flavour. Fruit tends to ripen less evenly than other varieties.
Meg Yamamoto is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and photographer (and a Saskatoon pie fanatic).