Saskatoons are another great permaculture plant. They produce an abundance of blueberry-like fruit and are adaptable to extreme variations in climate and soil conditions.
The saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) is one of the most common wild berries to be found in Western Canada and the North Western United States. While it is more common in the west, it can be found in all the provinces and territories of Canada. Other common names of this highly adaptable plant are serviceberry, juneberry, shadbush, and chuckley Pear.
Due to its wide range and adaptability saskatoons can range in size from small shrubs, not much more than a foot high, to small trees. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) and as such shares some common characteristics with other members of this family like apples and plums. The leaves are usually oval, 1-2" long and tend to be a medium to darkish green. Small white flowers appear in May or June followed by the abundant purple fruits that range from 3⁄16–19⁄32" in diameter.
Traditionally, saskatoons were one of the most important foods to the natives peoples of the prairies like the Blackfoot. The berries were eaten fresh and also dried, and used in pemmican. The berries were also used in ceremonies and for their medicinal properties. The hard straight grained wood of the saskatoon was also used in arrow making.
“Few children who grew up in northern British Columbia or on the prairies during the hungry ’30′s will forget the Saskatoon, for they picked countless quarts of the fruit to eat fresh or bottle for winter use . . . This was, quite literally, the only fruit that many families knew during the period of the Depression.”
L.J. Clark. 1976. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Gray’s Publishing, Sidney, British Columbia
Sasketoons are not just important food for humans though they are also a favorite food of many animals. Deer and moose will eat the branch tips in winter and leaves in summer. The berries are food for a multitude of animals from bears and coyotes to small mammals like squirrels and a large variety of birds.
Even wild varieties of saskatoons can produce abundant berry crops, although there is a fair amount of variation from tree to tree. The berries are somewhat similar to blueberries in flavor but perhaps not quite as tart and they also have larger seeds. Some people would describe them as having a mild almond flavor.
The berries are great when eaten fresh, freeze fairly well, and can make excellent preserves. They are often used in a variety of dessert foods like pies, tarts and muffins and are an excellent addition to ciders, wines and liquors. When used for jams or syrups, they are often better paired with a fruit that is a bit more tart to help balance the flavor.
The berries, although often thought of as a food, have also been traditionally used for their medicinal properties and this is no surprise. The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score of saskatoon berries is higher than most other common berries including strawberries, blueberries, and surprisingly raspberries. They are also a rich source of anthocyanins which are a group of flavonoids that gives them their deep purple color. Anthocyanins have been shown to have significant anti-carcinogenic and anti-oxidant activity.
Due to these desirable characteristics, saskatoons have the potential to be a commercial crop or a main berry crop for the homestead. However, they have a few other uses. They are good for erosion control and some varieties would make a great hedge or perimeter plant. The wood is hard and straight grained and would be suitable for tool handles. The medicinal potential is worth looking into, although beyond the scope of this article.
In a permaculture system, saskatoons will usually occupy either the shrub layer or sub-canopy layer. In some cases, they might even be able to be used in the canopy layer. There is great variation in the size between different varieties.
While Saskatoons have a wide native distribution across Western North America, there has also been intensive breeding programs that have come up with quite a few highly productive varieties that are more suitable for cultivation. While these varieties are usually selected for traits like large berry size, compatibility with harvesting machines, and uniform ripening they still maintain most of the hardy traits of their wild cousins.
These are just a few of the many varieties available.
Honeywood - Late blooming variety, good for areas that are prone to late frost. Berries are flavorful and have few seeds. Starts to yeild in 3 to 4 years.
Northline - Shrub sized plant that produces large amounts of 1/2" berries after only 3 years. One of the more preferable varieties for commercial production because of its early fruiting, compact size, and ability to be grown in tight rows. Tends to sucker more than other varieties.
Pembina - Grows to about 10 feet high. Berries are large and flavorful. Produces less suckers than some other varieties.
Thiessen - This variety is more like a tree than a shrub, growing to 20 feet in height. It also has large berries averaging 1/2" in diameter. The fruit tends to ripen at different times which can be good or bad depending on your needs.
Growing Conditions, Propagation, and Maintenance
As mentioned earlier, saskatoons are fairly adaptable plants and can grow in a wide range of conditions. They thrive in most soil types: rocky, sandy, loam or clay. The one thing saskatoons don't tolerate is poorly drained soils, so just be sure that you don't plant into areas that tend to stay water logged.
They are cold hardy in zones 2-7 (some varieties maybe zone 1) and can grow in a wide ph range of between 5.0 to 8.0 but will likely do better in the middle of that range. They can also tolerate a wide range of precipitation from near desert conditions to costal areas that have significant rain fall.
Propagation can be achieved from the many common methods: seed, root cuttings, hard and softwood cuttings, and crown division. Despite all these methods the most likely method people will utilize will be by transplanting the large numbers of suckers that will pop up around your existing plants.
If you do choose to plant seeds, just remember that they won't be true to type and there will be a fair amount of variation from plant to plant. Normally, the seeds are planted in the fall and will sprout the following spring. However, if the seeds are harvested before the seed coat hardens they can planted immediately and should sprout in a couple weeks.
Saskatoons do not need to be pruned to be productive, although some pruning may be beneficial, especially for commercial production and for machine harvesting. They should also perform well if coppiced or pollarded. Saskatoons evolved in areas that were naturally prone to forest fire and will readily re-sprout from the root. If your planting starts to get old and unproductive it can be revitalized by cutting it right to the ground.
Some years will be worse than others for diseases and pests, especially if you are engaging in commercial production and have a large area planted densely with saskatoons. Large pests like deer and birds can also be a problem, especially when the plants are just getting established. As always, planting a complex poly culture and having healthy soil will make a big difference. Planting other perennials that predator insects prefer nearby is always a good idea.