Saskatoons — What Came First: the City or the Berry?
Can you think of a major city named after a fruit? Bananaville? Melontown?
How about Saskatoon?
That’s right—the Paris of the prairies is named for the Saskatoon berry, which comes from the plant’s Cree name, “misâskwatômina.”
It’s a pretty big accomplishment for a pretty small berry.
Sitting in my Saskatoon berry patch, I feel transported to the windswept plains of the prairies. The small berries are like purple jewels in a landscape where native fruit is scarce.
I’m not the only animal that likes to eat Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia)—they’re attractive to smaller critters like squirrels and chipmunks, birds, and pollinating insects. The flavor (when ripe) can be described as a mix between a wild blueberry and an almond. The nutty-ness comes from its seeds.
Saskatoon berries look like a blueberry but they’re actually more closely related to the apple. Both are part of the rose family (Rosaceae). The bushes grow to about 16 feet, and in some cases look more like a tree with a single trunk.
Like apples, plants grown from a Saskatoon berry seed will not be genetically identical to its parent, so propagation happens from rooted cuttings.
Physically, the bushes are unassuming with small leaves, and pleasant white flowers. The berries add visual interest as they start out green, ripening to red, and then finally to a deep bluish-purple.
There are quite a few different varieties of Saskatoon berry with slight variations in bloom time, size of fruit, quantity of seeds. It’s not like apples where the flavor and appearance can be so dramatically different from one variety to the next. The most commonly cultivated variety is Smoky, due to its particularly tasty berries.
The Saskatoon berry played an integral role in the diet of the native people of BC and the prairies for centuries. They ate the berry raw, and dried them for prolonged storage. Mixed with pulverized meat, and tallow as a preservative, the Saskatoon berry provided the base for pemmican—an indigenous method of preparing a highly nutritious and non-perishable food.
Pemmican was adopted as a staple by colonial Europeans during the rise of the fur trade. It was even exported as a British military emergency food preparation during the Boer war in South Africa at the turn of the 19th century.
The plant itself had other uses including medicinal applications from the bark and leaves, and material for tools like knitting needles and arrows from the hard wood.
Saskatoon berries are great for baking and there’s a longstanding prairie tradition of using them for pie filling and jams.
Like all dark blue small fruits, they’re full of antioxidants and they’ve got a lot of protein compared to other fruits, from their edible seeds.
They hold up well to dehydration and are a welcome addition to any trail mix or muesli.
If you’ve got some bison meat kicking around, why not try your hand at making pemmican?
Another benefit of the Saskatoon berry is that unlike blueberries that need very acidic soil, it’s happy in a standard soil pH of 5-7.
It’s a low maintenance shrub that likes to be on a bit of a slope to encourage drainage and air circulation. Not much pruning is required before the plant is 6-8 years old. In ideal conditions, you’ll start to get fruit after just two years.