Northern North America is not known for its contribution to the world’s array of fruit crops. Most familiar fruits such as apples, plums, and cherries originated elsewhere. Several of our native species, such as coastal strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) have been used in breeding programs. Saskatoon (mostly Amelanchier alnifolia), a showy native shrub of the Rose Family (Rosaceae) provides an excellent starting point for a wild fruit collection and is now even grown as a commercial crop.
Saskatoon berry grows as a medium shrub to small many-stemmed tree up to 7 m (23’) high. The smooth stems are reddish brown to dark grey, and young twigs often silky. The 2.5 – 3.0 cm (1 -1.2″) long leaves have an oval outline, but may be slightly pointed at the tip and heart-shaped at the base. Sharp teeth line part, or all, of the leaf’s margin. Young leaves are bright green then turn bluish green with age.
Bright white flowers occur in leafy clusters toward the ends of the branches. Relatively hairy sepals form a base for the 1-2 cm (0.4-0.8”) long elongate petals. About 20 stamens choke the throat of the flowers, surrounding 4-5 styles. The ovary of Saskatoon, like that of the apple or pear, is inferior. This means that the sepals and the petals arise from the top of the ovary rather than below it, as is the case in a superior ovary.
The fruit is about a 0.5 to 1.0 cm (0.2-0.4”) across, and globe shaped. It ranges from purple to nearly black and is covered by a greyish blue bloom. Good quality fruit is juicy and sweet, however on the coast it usually dries out quickly becoming mealy or crunchy with little flavour.
Saskatoons thrive throughout British Columbia. The continental range extends along the coast from Alaska to California, eastward to New Mexico and north through the plains and prairies into Canada’s Northwest Territories. This shrub favours open to lightly shaded sites such as thickets, fence rows, clearings and edges of woods. A well-drained soil is essential.
Saskatoons are a favoured fruit of First Nations. The Thompson people recognized several types of bushes. Some types were gathered and dried for winter use. Other types were cooked to a jam-like form before being dried. Edible roots of other plants were sometimes soaked in Saskatoon juice to make them more flavourful and sweeter. Dried and rehydrated berries were added to dried vegetables and cooked into soups and puddings.
Other parts of the plant had many uses too. A drink was made from the bark for stomach problems. Bark and twigs provided a medicine for recovery after childbirth and, in combination with other plants, to make a contraceptive. The tough hard wood proved an excellent material for making arrows. Other uses included digging sticks, spear shafts and handles for tools. Saskatoon sticks were used to spread out salmon for drying, and the branches to construct shelters.
Today many British Columbians eat fresh berries off the bush or bake them in tasty pies. You can buy Saskatoon bushes specially bred for the home garden. These varieties produce bigger and sweeter fruit than most wild bushes. In the prairies Saskatoon plantations yield the raw material for a regional specialty, Saskatoon wine.
Growing Saskatoons is an easy matter if you have a sunny well-drained site. In the late winter or early spring, buy a bush from the garden centre or order it through the mail. Plant in a moderately-rich, but not heavily – fertilized soil and then cover the ground with mulch. You may have to water during the first year to help the young plant settle in. You can feature this shrub wherever you want, the spring flowers are stunning and the bright yellow to red fall leaves provide a cheerful accent. Plants can be grown from seed and self-sown seedlings.
The origin of the name Amelanchier remains unclear. The species name alnifolia means alder-leaved.
Saskatoon is an outstanding native shrub widely adapted to B.C.’s varying climates. Not only does it yield tasty fruit, but it serves well as a showy garden subject. To see Saskatoon berries visit the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C.