Saskatoon berries grow on large shrubs and are native to the Canadian prairies, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Alaska, British Columbia, and the Northwestern and North-central United States. They are members of the Rosaceae (Rose) family and are more closely related to apples than other berries because, like apples, Saskatoons continue to ripen after they’re picked. The name “saskatoon” comes from the Cree word misâskwatômina (mis-sack-qua-too-mina), which means “the fruit of the tree of many branches.” The berry has even shared its name with the largest city in Saskatchewan, also known as “the Paris of the Prairies”.
Saskatoon bushes grow wild across North America, particularly in sandy prairie soils, and were an important part of the culture of early Indigenous Peoples and the first settlers. The berries were consumed fresh, mashed or dried, and the leaves were used for tea. There were also many uses for the flexible wood of the saskatoon bush, including baskets and arrows.
Cultivated saskatoon berries are bigger and juicier than their wild counterparts and orchards can now be found in most Canadian provinces. Many include a ‘you pick’ business model, where adventurous individuals can pay a fee and spend an afternoon picking and filling their own pails with the delicious fruit.
There are several varieties of saskatoon berry shrubs that differ in height, berry size and maturity, but the key distinction when it comes to these prairie hardy natives is the name. Saskatoons have been known by many names across North America, including serviceberry, shadbush, juneberry and prairie berry.
How to Buy:
Saskatoons can be bought directly from orchards, found at farmers markets, or occasionally in supermarkets during their peak season in June/July. Many saskatoon berry producers sell directly to processors who turn them into saskatoon berry products like jams, syrups, frozen berries, pies and other culinary delights.
Look for plump, ripe berries that are a deep blue-purple colour and have a sweet, earthy taste. They are typically smaller than blueberries and there should be no green or squashed berries in the container.
Frozen saskatoon berries are available year-round in the freezer section of most grocery and speciality stores.
Tips for picking your own:
- To get peak flavour, harvest early in the morning, especially if the weather is hot.
- Harvest saskatoons at peak maturity – not when they are overripe and mushy. Remember they can continue to ripen after being picked so it’s better to err on the side of less ripe.
- Process promptly after harvesting or keep cool in the fridge/on ice until you can.
- Saskatoons also freeze well and can be frozen for later use.
How to Store:
If you are picking your own berries from a you-pick orchard, you will have to wash and sort your berries before storage. Remove any stems, leaves or soft or damaged berries and rinse them in cool water. Drain in a large colander or salad spinner and let dry on a paper towel.
Fresh berries can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days.
Spread the dry berries out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours. Once frozen, transfer them to a container or freezer bag and put them back in the freezer. Be sure to label them with the date.
Frozen berries will last up to 12 months in a deep freeze before the quality starts to deteriorate. Avoid freezer burn and maintain quality by using vacuum-sealed bags.
How to Prepare:
Saskatoons are delicious fresh right from the tree or with a bit of sweet cream. However, to enjoy these summer treats all year long, they are equally delicious when turned into jams, jellies, syrups, ice cream toppings, wine, liqueurs, and flavour concentrates. Or keep some in the freezer to turn into saskatoon berry pies and other baked goods over the long winter. Saskatoons can also be dried to produce “raisins” or “fruit leathers”.
Try this Classic Canadian Recipe: Saskatoon Pie
These superberries are packed with fibre and nutrients. A 3/4 cup (100g) serving of frozen saskatoon berries contain 6 grams of fibre or 24% of your daily requirement. They also contain manganese, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium and protein. Further, research indicates that saskatoon berries have higher antioxidant levels than other common berries such as wild blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Because they contain special pigments called flavonoids, they may also help to prevent cancer, heart disease and eye tissue degeneration.
How Saskatoons are Grown:
The saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) is a small to large shrub or tree of the Rose family. There is a strong relationship between saskatoons and apples, hawthorn and mountain ash. Saskatoons are woody, fruit-bearing perennial shrubs that are native to North America and have adapted to a wide range of soils and climates.
Saskatoon orchards are planted in a variety of ways as new bushes can grow from seeds, suckers, various cuttings (root, softwood, hardwood, shoots) and more. An important thing to note is that new bushes don’t bear fruit until they are three to five years old and they don’t reach peak production until six to eight years old.
Orchard owners monitor their saskatoon groves for insects and disease and prune out damaged parts of the plants to ensure they stay healthy and will continue to produce for years. They maintain the health of their bushes by weeding around the roots and between the rows, applying pesticides to combat invasive bugs and diseases and irrigating young plants to ensure their survival. Being a native, prairie hardy species, saskatoon bushes are fairly self-sufficient and seasonal rainfall is usually adequate, so irrigation is not a necessity.
Every 10 years or so when an orchard reaches maturity, it needs to be renovated, where workers strip out dead or unproductive trees, promote new shoot development and provide more space for harvesting.
Smaller saskatoon berry orchards use the U-pick model to encourage individuals to come harvest their trees for them, or they employ seasonal workers to pre-pick the berries for sale at farmers markets and in grocery stores.
On the prairies, larger orchards use mechanical harvesting machines designed for fruit crop harvesting (like high-bush blueberries) to take off their crop. The machine surrounds the bush on both sides and drives down the hedgerow where specialized beater bars or picking fingers knock the berries off the bush onto a collection tray. Once the berries are picked, they are sorted by hand or by machine to remove the red and green berries, leaves, sticks and buds that fall into the tray. They are washed and sent to be processed for sale.
Canadian Crop is Available: Late June to Early July and even into late July, depending on location and conditions.
Grown in: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, NWT, Yukon, Ontario
For More Information:
- Gov of Alberta – Saskatoon Berry Production Manual
- Gov of Manitoba – Growing Saskatoon Berries
- Saskatoon Berry Institute of North America