Saskatoon berry shrubs grow from Alaska down through Canada into the north-western United States. A shrub can grow from 3 feet (1 metre) to 16 feet (5 metres) tall, with long, oval leaves. It can be grown from seed or cuttings. It won’t always grow true to seed, though: the fruit of a shrub grown from seed may end up different from the fruit of the shrub that produced the seed. The shrubs are very cold hardy, down to -40 F / -40 C, making them of interest in places where growing other fruit is a challenge.
The shrubs have white blossoms with 5 petals in spring, before its leaves come out, of which bees are very fond. The blossoms (and subsequent berries) are produced on branches from previous years, though the younger the branch, the better they bear.
The Saskatoon berry shrubs start producing berries when the shrub is 2 to 4 years old. The berries grow in clusters. As they ripen, the berries go from light red to pink to red then very dark purple. The berries will ripen all at once. The birds wait until the berries are fully ripe in late June or early July, then swoop in for a feed.
Saskatoon berries are dark purple, ⅓ to ½ inch (10 to 15 mm) wide, and sweet and juicy with 5 to 10 light-coloured, crunchy seeds inside.
Attempts to describe the taste will range anywhere from a combination of blueberry and raisin, to blueberry, cherry and almond. Fans swear they’d rather have them than blueberries any day, but as many people don’t care for them.
The fruit from wild Saskatoon Berry shrubs is considered barely palatable by some, by others quite tasty. It all depends what wild variety the commentators have had the luck to come across. Domestic cultivars have improved on the taste, making it consistent, and doubling the size of the berries.
The most widely grown Saskatoon Berry cultivar is named “Smoky.” It started being grown in the 1960s, getting more popular in the 1980s. Its berries can be mechanically harvested if spaced appropriately.
Saskatoon Berries can be dried into “raisins”.
Saskatoon Berries are native to northern North America. The Cree Indians called the berry “misaskwatomin” or “missakqhahtoomina”, which got anglicized to “Saskatoon.” In addition to being the name of a berry, Saskatoon is also the name of the largest city in the Canadian province of “Saskatchewan.”
The first man-made cultivar was called “Success”, developed in 1878.
In 2004, a Canadian company called Prairie Land tried to sneak Saskatoon Berries into the UK without going through the usual reviews required by the Food Standards Association (FSA), by saying the berries were equivalent to blueberries. The berries were available on store shelves for about 3 months, before the importers were caught out around May of that year by some sharp-witted inspector who no doubt tasted the berries and perhaps compared scientific names. The review requirements state that any new foods introduced into the European Union (EU) need to undergo testing to ensure they are safe for consumers. Foods being consumed within the EU prior to 1997 are grandfathered and given exemption to this. Saskatoon Berries didn’t meet this requirement which would have supplied European-based proof that they were “safe to eat” and so were banned from sale.
Canadians, who at one point were on the verge of banning bottles of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce from store shelves because it didn’t have French on the label, were apoplectic at being hoisted on their own petard by someone else’s food bureaucrats. The British managed by the end of 2004, however, to mollify the Canadians by finding evidence of Saskatoon Berry consumption in Finland in 1996, thus making the berries eligible for grandfathering. The berries were relaunched in the UK with a ceremony held at Canada House in London in June 2005.