The Culture Of Some Common Prairie Native Fruit Species


Article by - Richard G. St-Pierre, Ph.D.


This article is a revised version of the article that was originally published in 1992 in the Bulletin of the Heritage Seed Program 5(2): pp 12-19.




Most varieties of commonly cultivated fruit species, such as the strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, plum and cherry, are not well adapted to the climatic conditions of the Canadian prairie provinces; only a few, adequately hardy varieties are available. Except for the strawberry and raspberry, commercial production of fruit on the prairies has generally not been economically feasible, although a variety of these fruits are grown in prairie gardens. However, there are a number of fruit species native to Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba that are adapted to the prairie climate, many of which have substantial horticultural potential. These native fruit species include the beaked hazelnut, blueberry, bog cranberry, buffaloberry, bunchberry, choke cherry, cloudberry, currant, elderberry, gooseberry, wild grape, hawthorn, high-bush cranberry, lingonberry, mountain ash, pin cherry, prickly pear cactus, wild raspberry, wild rose, saskatoon, and wild strawberry.


These fruit species are found in a variety of native habitats within the prairie, aspen parkland and boreal forest ecological zones of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and are adapted to the region's harsh winters. The warm, sunny, dry prairie summers enhance fruit quality and help decrease the incidence of disease. The City of Saskatoon lies in the south center of the province of Saskatchewan, within Canadian plant hardiness zone 2b, and is fairly representative of the prairie climate. Here, the length of the frost-free season is 108 days. The December through February average minimum temperature is -20.7oC and the extreme minimum is -50oC. The May through August average maximum temperature is 22.4oC and the extreme maximum is 41oC. For these same summer months, 63% of total daylight hours are bright sunshine, and the average total precipitation is 190.8 mm.


Why cultivate native fruit species?


In the not too distant past, the importance of wild plant species as sources of food, medicines, fibres, building materials, ornamentals, and other products was commonly recognized; wild and domesticated plants were integrated with daily life. Today, the majority of people in industrialized countries are more or less divorced from any meaningful connection with the natural world and the importance of wild plant species is hardly recognized. One consequence of this is an increasingly rapid loss of our wild botanical resources, primarily through habitat loss. A renewed interest in wild plant species is important to a re-integration of our lives with the natural world, to the preservation of natural ecosystems essential for the maintenance of healthy planet, and to the broadening of our agricultural base, which is dangerously dependent on relatively few crop species and genetic varieties. Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of nature, and of wild plant species, to our well being. The cultivation of wild plant species, such as our native fruit species, is one way by which we can attempt to re-integrate ourselves with our natural heritage.


Historically, native fruit species were important to indigenous peoples and European settlers. For example, late 16th century journals of the Hudson's Bay Company indicate that large quantities of lingonberries were sent yearly to England as gifts. The horticultural potential of wild fruit species has long been recognized. The explorer David Thompson suggested in 1787-1788 that the saskatoon ought to be cultivated in Canada and England. The first professor of horticulture at the University of Saskatchewan, C.F. Patterson, includes an entire chapter in his 1936 book on such fruits as meriting cultivation. The saskatoon was first cultivated in the Peace River area of northern Alberta by W. D. Albright in 1918.


Ecological reasons need not be the only reasons for growing native fruit species. Native fruits are characterized by a variety of traits that allow substantial versatility of use. Their multipurpose function includes use as ornamentals for landscaping purposes, wildlife habitat improvement, shelterbelts and hedgerows, and of course, as edible fruit that help balance and diversify our diets, and make eating a delightful pleasure. The cultivation of a variety of native fruit species allows one to produce a variety of organically grown fruit over the course of a season. Some, like the saskatoon and blueberry, can be eaten fresh. All can be used in processed products including jams, jellies, sauces, syrups, juices, ice cream, yogurt, chocolates, muffins, pies, tarts, cookies, pancakes, wine and liqueurs, raisins, fruit leathers, water-reduced purees, flavour concentrates, and dyes. Many, if not most, of the native fruits are best eaten processed because the fresh fruit are often overly sour or astringent.


The development of native fruits as new horticultural crops


All of the plants we currently cultivate as crops have been derived from wild plant species. There are about 250,000 species of flowering plants in the world; of these, about 20,000 have useful edible parts, about 200 have been domesticated as crops, and only 15-20 species are crops of major importance. About 80,000 species have been used for medicinal purposes, and currently, about 80% of the world's population (primarily outside of the industrialized countries) still relies on traditional plant-based medicine. There is no reason why native fruit species cannot be developed and grown as new horticultural crops on the prairies. Widespread cultivation of native fruit species in small orchards, shelterbelts and hedgerows could significantly contribute to the diversification and health of the prairie agricultural economy by enhancing alternative agricultural production, by promoting the development of mixed farming operations, and by providing a more substantive base for a processing industry. The development of a range of unique products would allow access to local, national, and international (especially Eastern Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and China) markets. In addition, native fruit products are very amenable to the Certified Organic market.


The horticultural production of native fruit species appears to have significant commercial potential. Harvests of blueberries from managed wild stands in eastern Canada average 23 million kg/year and return $162 million to the economies of Quebec and the Maritime provinces. Relatively small orchards of native fruit species can produce high yields and profits. Estimates of crop yields for mature saskatoon orchards presently range from 2,600 to over 13,500 kg/ha. Average prices per 4 litre container (about 2.2 kg of berries) are $7.50 (pick-your-own operations), and $11.00 (pre-picked). Based on these yield estimates and prices, the potential return per hectare ranges from $8,860 - $67,500.


There is substantial interest in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta in the commercial production of native fruit species. Many small saskatoon orchards have been initiated. In 1989, Saskatchewan had about 39 ha of saskatoons in production, and an additional 53 planted. In Alberta in 1991, 330 ha of saskatoons had been established, with about 73 ha producing. Currently, the demand for saskatoon fruit exceeds the supply. In east-central Saskatchewan, the production of highbush cranberries and associated processed products has been initiated. The wild harvest of blueberries and lingonberries, primarily by native people in the northern parts of the prairie provinces, provides a limited supply of these fruits, but yields are inconsistent from year to year. The production of processed native fruit products is a viable, expanding cottage industry.


The development of a horticultural industry based on the culture and management of native fruit species is not without difficulty. Development costs can be high ($3,600 - $12,000/ha); the return on this investment may take 10-12 years to recoup. For many native fruit species, few if any varieties exist and it is difficult to obtain sufficient quantities of any given variety to establish a commercial plantation. Contract propagation is often not feasible because propagation companies are not willing to develop or refine the required methods unless there is a substantial market. Cultural information is almost completely lacking for most native fruit species. Effective, alternative methods of pest and disease control need to be developed. Economical methods of mechanical harvesting and grading are also not available for small orchards. Suitable methods for postharvest storage and processing, the establishment of commercial processing facilities, and major marketing efforts are required; substantial initiatives in these directions have yet to be taken.


Individuals interested in pursuing the commercial production of native fruit species are well advised to start small. A variety of native fruit species can be grown in small garden orchards, or incorporated into hedgerows or shelterbelts. Such an approach is low risk because of a minimal investment in time and money, and allows one to gain experience in the culture of these fruits.


General aspects of native fruit culture


Growers of native fruit species are pioneers. Specific information regarding the propagation and culture of native fruit species is often difficult to obtain. This is because such fruit species have not been grown as major fruit crops and consequently have not been the focus of intensive commercial or scientific interest. General recommendations for small fruit culture are useful starting points, as are recommendations for related species of commercial importance. Some knowledge of the natural habitat of the various native fruit species can also be applicable to their culture. The reader is referred to the Bibliography provided at the end of this article for more information concerning fruit culture in general, and for specific details of the culture and propagation of some native fruit species.


Plants, and sometimes specific cultivars of the various native fruit species can often be obtained from nurseries in the northern States and in the prairie provinces. However, the cultivation of native fruit species creates opportunities for the development of new and superior varieties. Such development may simply involve selection and propagation of superior plants (those with more flavorful, larger, or different colored fruit for example), from plants found growing in the wild, or from a large number of seedlings that have been grown in a nursery or orchard. Breeding and hybridization can also result in superior new varieties, but require long term, intensive efforts. Enthusiastic individuals who wish to select their own varieties from the wild face the problem of how to propagate the selected material. Transplanting entire plants is not recommended because it often is unsuccessful and may have adverse effects on the survival of native fruit species in the wild. However, the careful removal and transplanting of a few suckers may be acceptable and successful. Two common methods of propagation that usually are successful are to collect and germinate seed, or to take softwood cuttings for rooting. The use of seed often requires a period of cold stratification in order for germination to occur. Additionally, individual plants with superior qualities seldom reproduce true to type from seed and therefore some method of vegetative propagation (cloning), such as taking softwood cuttings, is necessary. In order for rooting to be successful, softwood cuttings are usually best dipped in a strong rooting powder and then placed in a mist bed where the root zone can be kept warm (about 25oC). The reader is referred to the Bibliography for further details on these and other methods of propagation.


The following is basic information about some of the more common fruit species native to the prairie provinces and which perhaps have the greatest horticultural potential.


Beaked hazelnut


The beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, also called the wild filbert, is a common bushy, spreading shrub of the Birch family. It is found on moist hillsides, and on well-drained sites in aspen, or mixed aspen-spruce forest. Flowering occurs in early to mid-May with separate male and female flowers occurring on the same stem. The flowers often open before the leaves appear. Cross pollination, which is dependent on the wind, is necessary for adequate nut set and development. Fruit are produced in clusters of 1-4 and ripen in late summer or early fall; the nut is enclosed in a long green or brown sheath. The nuts are somewhat difficult to harvest and shell, partly because of the spiny hairs that cover their surface. Hazelnuts are easily grown as hedgerows because of their suckering habit. Propagation is best done using transplanted suckers, or by layering.




A number of Vaccinium spp. are referred to as blueberries, but in the prairie provinces, the blueberry is primarily of the species V. myrtilloides. The blueberry is a low, branched shrubby member of the Heath family and is perhaps the most popular of all the wild fruit species. Blueberries usually grow in dense patches on the forest floor, in moist meadows, and in logged and burned areas, often on sandy soils. They require acidic soils (pH 4.5 - 5.5) and are best pruned every 2-3 years by burning or mowing in late fall. The first flower buds are produced the season after mowing, although flowering and fruit production do not occur until the second season after mowing. Flowering may occur from mid-June through until mid-July with fruit ripening from mid-August through September. The flowers must be cross pollinated in order for fruit to be set and if cultivated, some supplemental pollination by honeybees may be very beneficial. The blueberry can be propagated from leafy softwood cuttings, seed, or by transplanting suckers. However, it may be easier to manage naturally occurring stands.




The buffaloberry, Shepherdia argentea, is a small to large thorny shrub, and a member of the Oleaster family. It grows in dense thickets in ravines, aspen bluffs, and on stream banks, most commonly on lighter soils. The buffaloberry is a very cold and drought hardy species that has considerable potential for use as a shelterbelt. In addition, this native fruit species is a nitrogen fixer. Flowering occurs in late April to May; the male and female flowers are on separate plants. Fruit ripen in early to late fall and are best harvested after a hard frost. The fruit of the buffaloberry vary from orange to red in color and are somewhat bitter. They are difficult to pick in quantity; perhaps the easiest method is one used by prairie native peoples who waited until temperatures were below freezing and then sharply struck branches with a stick; the frozen berries readily fell to the ground under these circumstances and could be collected on a sheet or mat. The buffaloberry can be propagated through seed or by transplanting root suckers.


Choke cherry


The choke cherry, Prunus virginiana, is a shrubby member (and sometimes a small tree) of the Rose family, and is a wild cherry. It is a common fruit species that is shade intolerant and is found most often at the edges of aspen bluffs, and in open woods; it prefers rich, moist soils, but may also be found on poorer, drier soils. The choke cherry flowers in late May and early June; cross pollination is beneficial for fruit set. The red to dark purple (sometimes yellow or orange) fruit ripen in August. The fruit tend to be very astringent, although, on occasion, semi-sweet fruit can be found. Despite its name, choke cherry fruit can be processed into a variety of excellent products. The choke cherry can be propagated from seed and transplanted suckers (of which many are produced).




Ribes spp. are low growing, much branched shrubs belonging to the currant and gooseberry family. Currants are distinguished from gooseberries by the lack of prickles on their stems. They may be found on moderately well to poorly drained sites in shady, moist woods, along stream banks and roadsides, and in meadows and logged areas. Ribes triste (northern red currant), and R. hudsonianum (northern black currant) are two of the more common native currants. These species flower in June. Insect pollination greatly enhances fruit set. The fruit ripen by mid- to late July. Currants may be propagated in a number of ways including layering, taking softwood cuttings, taking 15 cm hardwood cuttings in autumn, and by transplanting offshoots.


High-bush and low-bush cranberry


The high-bush and low-bush cranberries, Viburnum trilobum and V. edule, are not true cranberries, but members of the Honeysuckle family. The high-bush cranberry is a large shrub or small tree, while the low-bush cranberry is a small to medium sized shrub. These fruit species grow in moist woods, river valleys, and aspen groves, and are tolerant of slightly acidic soils, but prefer moist, well-drained soils; they are also shade tolerant. These native fruits flower in late May and June. The high-bush cranberry produces a broad flower cluster with the larger, outer, showy flowers being sterile. The low-bush cranberry produces only a few flowers per cluster, none of which are sterile. The fruit ripen in mid- to late August. The fruit are large, bright red, juicy, contain a single flattened seed and grow in clusters of few to many fruit. Both species were referred to as 'pembina' by the voyageurs. The fruit resemble that of the true cranberry in flavour and are often used as a replacement; their sour flavour is improved by a frost and they are excellent sources of Vitamin C. They are best propagated via softwood cuttings taken in mid- to late June and rooted in sand or perlite under mist, although hardwood cuttings and layering may also be successful.




The lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus, also a member of the Heath family, is a common fruit of the boreal forest. It is closely related to the blueberry, but in character, the fruit is very similar to that of the true bog cranberry, which we use at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Traditionally, northern peoples around the world have made extensive use of the lingonberry. The fruit have been an important part of Northern Eurasian diets for centuries. The lingonberry is considered one of the most important edible, wild fruits in northern Canada by the aboriginal peoples, and many historical references to the lingonberry have been made by European explorers. The lingonberry has many common names. In Norway, Denmark and Germany, it is called tyttebaer; in Sweden, lingon; in Finland, puolukka. The Cree call the lingonberry wi-sa-gu-mina and the Inuit have several names including keepmingyuk, keepmik, and toomalgleet. It is called cowberry in Britain, partridgeberry in Newfoundland, foxberry in Nova Scotia, and rock cranberry, mountain cranberry, dry ground cranberry, or low bush cranberry in other parts of Canada and Alaska. The lingonberry is a creeping, very low shrub that grows most commonly on acidic (pH 3.5 - 4.5), well drained soils under jack pine. The lingonberry flowers in late May or early June. Insect pollination will greatly enhance fruit set. The fruit ripen in mid- to late August and are bright red, juicy, and very flavourful. They are best after the first frost, but even overwintered fruit are quite acceptable. Lingonberries may be propagated through the use of seed, rhizome pieces, transplanting, and softwood cuttings taken in the spring or autumn. The cultivation of lingonberries allows one to obtain much greater yields than can be obtained from harvesting wild plants.


Pin cherry


The pin cherry, Prunus pensylvanica, is another wild cherry, and thus also a member of the Rose family. This native fruit species is widely distributed across Canada. It is a tall shrub or small tree that is intolerant of shade, and grows singly or in groves along rivers, in clearings and burned or logged areas, and on hillsides. The pin cherry can be distinguished from the choke cherry by the structure of its flower cluster; in the pin cherry, 5 - 7 flowers arise from a common point on the branch; in the choke cherry, many flowers are arranged along a central stem that is attached at one point on the branch. The pin cherry flowers in May through to June, and the red, translucent fruit containing a single stone ripen in late August and early September. Pin cherries often do not produce a fruit crop because of their early flowering habit that often results in the loss of the potential crop through late spring frosts or the absence of insect pollination. Pincherries may be propagated from seed.




Rosa acicularis and R. woodsii, the prickly rose and wood rose, are wild shrubby roses that are common and widespread across the prairies. They may be found growing in aspen bluffs, on hillsides, along riverbanks and roadsides, and in clearings. They prefer well drained, rich soil, and are intolerant of shade. These roses flower in June through to August and the fruit ripen in mid-August through late September. The fruit are referred to as rosehips and are best harvested after the first hard frost. They may be eaten raw, although the seeds should be removed as the hairs can apparently irritate the digestive system. Wild roses may be propagated through seed, softwood or hardwood cuttings, layering, transplanting suckers, or by budding on a suitable rootstock.




The saskatoon, Amelanchier alnifolia, is closely related to the apple, mountain ash and hawthorn and thus also a member of the Rose family. The saskatoon has long been a treasured wild fruit on the prairies; historically, it was important to the aboriginal peoples, and subsequently to the voyageurs and European settlers. The saskatoon is a small to large shrub that grows on hillsides, in ravines, open woods, along riverbanks, and in aspen bluffs. The saskatoon is a hardy and tolerant fruit species. It is resistant to low temperatures and drought, and grows in a wide range of soil types, but it grows best on well-drained soils. It is only partially shade tolerant. The saskatoon flowers in early to late May and early June and is self-pollinated. Inconsistent fruit crops are often the result of late spring frosts, or loss of immature fruit to brown fruit rot and a variety of insects. The purple fruit (sometimes white or pink) ripen in early to late July. The saskatoon is best propagated through seed, transplanting suckers, or rooted shoot cuttings produced from a mature bush that has been cut back to ground level. A variety of named cultivars are currently available from nurseries and propagation companies; some of the more promising cultivars include 'Thiessen', 'Pembina', 'Northline', and 'Smoky'. It is best not to purchase saskatoon plants that have been grafted onto a rootstock (most likely cotoneaster) because the graft may break down over a period of about 10 years, and a twice yearly pruning of cotoneaster shoots will be necessary.


A final note


The propagation, culture, and preservation of native fruit varieties of one's own selection can be a very rewarding experience. Ultimately, however, a renewed interest in our native fruit species may be critical to their long term preservation. Urban expansion, deforestation and clearing of marginal land for agricultural purposes have contributed to the loss of genetic diversity in many native fruit species. Fortunately, many farms on the prairies harbor varieties of native fruit species that have been selected from local wild germplasm. Prairie rural gardens represent an excellent way of maintaining grassroots interest in the preservation of genetic diversity and patches of natural ecosystems. Cultivating native fruit species as crops will also help relieve the pressures of large scale harvesting from wild populations.




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