Whether it’s blueberries brightening up a breakfast or an aubergine shining out of a moussaka, there’s something mysteriously magnetising about blue-hued produce. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the indigo-coloured honeyberry – a new ‘superberry’ from Siberia and Japan – is capturing the attention of an increasing number of buyers and producers worldwide, including that of entrepreneurial, young Scottish grower Stewart Arbuckle. Produce Business UK investigates the emerging variety’s commercial potential
Purple all the way through
A third-generation grower at family-run soft fruit farm PA Arbuckle & Sons in Dundee, Scotland, Arbuckle, aged just 30, tells PBUK he was looking for a new business opportunity a couple of years ago when he came across honeyberries (sometimes known as haskap) during a Google search.
Following his gut instinct he invested in a 12-acre (five hectare) orchard, becoming one of the first British growers to plant honeyberry trees in the UK. Now, he believes this quirky, oblong-shaped fruit is set to join the likes of strawberries and raspberries, and become one of the British public’s favourite summer fruits. He says: “I was just looking for the next exciting berry and they [honeyberries] seemed to tick all of the boxes.”
As its sweet-sounding name suggests, the plant is a member of the same genus (Lonicera) as common garden honeysuckles and originally hails from northern Asia. Arbuckle explains: “Honeyberries taste great. They’re like a cross between a raspberry, a blueberry and a blackberry – and they’ve got a real added ‘zing’ to them. They’re seedless, they’ve got a blue, waxy, skin, a bluey-purple colour and they’re super-healthy. For example, they have more vitamin C than an orange and nearly as much potassium as a banana.”
Honeyberries are also particularly appealing to the food industry because, thanks to their polyphenol compounds, their juice is so colourful. “When you crush and juice them, or if you bite into them, they’re purple all of the way through – it’s a really vibrant colour,” Arbuckle notes. “There are not many foods that are naturally blue but people want more blue in their diet. So if we can provide an alternative then great, particularly as blue is a colour you don’t get much of on the supermarket shelves.”
A versatile berry
Arbuckle suggests honeyberries make “amazing” sauces and could even rival traditional cranberry sauce at Christmas time. He also believes they make great additions to ice creams, jams, relishes and smoothies. Already, the drinks firm Innocent Drinks is expressing an interest in the product, and Arbuckle is keen to target the frozen market in the future.
“The nutrients and taste are perfectly preserved in the frozen berries,” Arbuckle says. “Some say the berries taste even better frozen and there’s less risk to the growers – you don’t have a mad rush to get them out of the ground.”
Although his farm is only producing a relatively small tonnage of the berries, Arbuckle is keen to start generating greater awareness of the fruit this year. “The plants were established last year so we will have our first reasonable harvest this year,” he reveals. “We are targeting restaurants – getting them to try them out. And we are getting a lot of big name chefs to do some PR.”
Unknown – but not for long?
Given their many attributes, it’s a wonder honeyberries are still something of an unknown in the fresh produce world. Arbuckle explains there are a lot of honeyberries being grown in Russia, although given the country’s import ban on EU exports, there is, he says, “very little that’s known about [the extent of] that”.
There are also a few growers with large acreages in Poland, but the most noteworthy development is currently happening in North America. There, breeder and – as described by Arbuckle – “honeyberry guru of the world” Lidia Delafield, of US-based Berries Unlimited, has developed many new honeyberry varieties, including the cultivars Happy Giant, Blue Moose, Blue Palm and Strawberry Sensation, which has a hint of strawberry flavour.
“Lidia has spent years collecting varieties from Japan, Russia and Poland and has dedicated the last decade to creating the best commercial varieties,” Arbuckle explains. “She’s come up with the next generation of varieties that are better-tasting, better-yielding – and they have a more upright habit, so they are easier to machine harvest, which is key for us as growers.”
Delafield has been working with LoveHoneyberry Solutions consultant Logie Cassells, who has grown some 300 acres (121 hectares) of the fruit in Nova Scotia, Canada. “In Canada they cannot satisfy the demand for them at the moment and the US is fast cottoning on,” remarks Arbuckle, who has invested in some of Delafield’s newer varieties – and is working with Cassells to sell the plants to other growers in the UK.
Suited to cold climates
Happily, honeyberries grow best in temperate climates like the UK, which is why Arbuckle is keen for other domestic growers to invest in the variety.
He says: “We are looking to encourage growers all over the UK, including England, to grow honeyberries. I also see a competitive advantage in the long-term for a group of Scottish growers to work together because we can market a Scottish premium.”
Arbuckle is also hoping the introduction of this berry to the UK will help encourage more young people to get back into farming. “It has high margins but low costs and risks,” he claims, adding that honeyberry plants only thrive in soil that is healthy. For that reason he is enlisting the help of Nutri-Tech Solutions’ soil health expert Graham Sait.
“When people buy our plants we encourage them to invest in the whole orchard and to establish good soil health too,” notes Arbuckle. By creating new habitats and focusing on the health of the land he says growers will, in turn, help to reverse climate change – an issue that he suggests is of particular interest to “younger folk”.
Fresh produce buyers, as well as growers, will also be interested to know that honeyberries are harvested around 10 to 14 days earlier than local native (outdoor-grown) strawberries. The timing of these purpley-blue gems could therefore help enhance the start of the UK’s soft fruit season – and create many new opportunities for the sector.