Four such delectable berries – honeyberry, juneberry, aronia and elderberry – are being studied at Willsboro Research Farm, which is marking the 10-year anniversary of its specialty fruit trials.
These native berries were essential food sources for Native Americans and early European colonists, ripening at different times throughout the growing season. They are vitamin-rich and high in fiber and antioxidants, but somewhere along the way, these fruits were deemed less commercially viable, and the berries found in today’s supermarkets, like strawberry, blueberry and raspberry, became dominant. Now, with climate change and invasive pests threatening those crops, and increased consumer interest in local and unique foods, a handful of entrepreneurial growers and researchers are trying to resurrect these superfruits in New York.
“If you go to farmers markets, they’re so deficient in fruit, and if you have fruit, you can’t keep it on your table,” said Mike Davis, Willsboro farm manager and principal investigator of the specialty fruit trials. “These superfruits just seem like a beautiful option for growers, from a marketing standpoint, and for consumers, from a nutrition standpoint.”
‘A native nursery’
Though uncommon in the U.S., elderberries are widely grown throughout Europe and used as a traditional medicine, especially to treat colds and flus. Honeyberries are grown commercially in Canada, Russia and Japan, where they are called “the elixir of life,” Davis said. Juneberries are also grown in Canada, though they are native throughout North America, with at least one species native to every U.S. state except Hawaii.
Davis worked with Michael Burgess, associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Plattsburgh, to establish New York’s first and only juneberry research nursery at Willsboro, one of nine research farms across New York operated by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Cornell AES). In 2013 and 2014, the pair traveled from Maine to Pennsylvania to Michigan collecting wild juneberry seeds. They also added commercial fruit-producing and ornamental juneberry varieties.
“Our goal was to create a native nursery of plant specimens that we thought might be good fruit producers,” Davis said.
In 2017, the Willsboro research team added six Aronia varieties and 19 honeyberries. In 2022, they added five American and two European varieties of elderberry.
Collectively, these four fruits can provide an almost-continuous fruit crop from early June to late September. The long-term trials at the North Country nursery are intended to aid development of best-management practices for each fruit, with considerations for soil type, weather conditions, pest and disease pressures, and other factors.
Learning with growers
Davis said that partnerships with growers are a key part of the project.
“Some market growers are trying them, selling at farmers markets or doing you-picks. And it is growing, but slowly, as people become aware of what’s out there,” he said.
Duane Smith, owner of Seaway Coldhardy Grapes in Evans Mills, New York, started farming in 2005 with the goal of finding cold-tolerant fruits suitable for northern New York. He grows grapes and honeyberries on his 5-acre farm.
“What fascinates me with honeyberries is the fact that they can be coated with ice crystals, they wilt slightly, but if it warms up later, they will recover. If it was blueberries, they’d be dead,” Smith said. “It’s been a very exciting time collaborating with the people in this area and with the Willsboro folks to find fruit varieties that will work in our climate.”
Dani Baker, owner of Cross Island Farms in Wellesley Island, New York, began farming in 2005 and raises livestock, vegetables, and an array of commercial and native fruits and nuts. Varieties of all of the superfruits being studied at Willsboro are planted at Cross Island Farms, which is one of six farm collaborators. Baker has discovered that juneberries don’t grow well in heavy clay soils and that deer have no interest in honeyberry fruits, perhaps because they get so much of its invasive honeysuckle cousin throughout forests. Davis has shared his success with planting millet as a cover crop to combat weeds, a strategy Baker has adopted in her garden.
The most troublesome creature for all the superfruits is birds, and spongy moth caterpillars wreaked havoc on Willsboro’s juneberry plants last year.
“Honeyberries have been fabulous, and I’ve learned a lot about them,” Baker said. “They’re drought tolerant, no pests, no disease; they’re much more resilient than blueberries. Their juice runs magenta and melts in your mouth. I sell them for $5 for half a pint, and they fly off the stand.”
Explore how to incorporate native berries in your cooking.
- ⅓ cup fresh honeyberries
- 1 T honey
- ⅛ t cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Use as a topping on pork/chicken, salad, sorbet, etc.
Recipe by Duane Smith
Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.
- 3 cups elderberries
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 4 Ts flour
- 3 Ts lemon juice (optional)
Spread elderberries in a graham cracker pie shell. Mix sugar and flour and sprinkle over berries. Sprinkle lemon juice over mix. Bake at 475 for 10 minutes then turn down oven to 450 for another 40 to 45 minutes.
Recipe by Dani Baker
Iroquois white corn & berry dessert
- 1 cup boiled white corn
- 2 Tbsp maple syrup (optional)
- 1 cup sassafras tea
- 12 ounces of frozen mixed berries, or fresh berries
Pour tea over boiled white corn and allow to soak for 15-20 minutes. Place mixed berries in a large bowl. Pour corn/tea mixture over berries, stirring two tablespoons of maple syrup (optional) in to sweeten. Let sit, or refrigerate until berries thaw.
Recipe by Laticia McNaughton
Aronia pinwheel cookies
Preheat over to 375 degrees F.
- 1 cup Aronia berries fresh or frozen
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 cup pecans
- 1 cup butter softened
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Process together berries, pecans and brown sugar into a paste in a food processor and set aside. For the remaining ingredients: Beat softened butter for 30 seconds. Add sugar, baking powder and salt and beat until combined. Beat in eggs. Add flour (may have to work in by hand). Divide dough in half and refrigerate for 1 hour. When chilled, roll each half into a 10" square. Spread with filling and roll up. Chill rolls for at least 4 hours. Slice into 1/4" cookies; place on parchment paper to bake. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes. Edges should be firm and bottoms lightly browned.
German elderberry soup
- 1 lb elderberries
- 6 ¼ cups water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 cloves
- ½ lb apples (tart)
- 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- Sugar or other sweetener to taste
- Juice from ½ lemon
Bring the elderberries and water to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Run through a strainer and discard the solids. Alternatively, you can use elderberry juice if you have it already made.
Core and peel apples, and slice into pieces. Add apples, cinnamon, cloves, lemon juice and sweetener and stew for just a few minutes. You don’t want the apples to fall apart. Mix the starch with a bit of cold water, stir into the soup, and boil for just a minute.
This soup is traditionally served with grit dumplings, but can also be served with thick cornmeal porridge or similar. Serve hot or cold, for breakfast, dessert, or lunch on a hot day.
Recipe by Anja Timm
Rhubarb & juneberry jam
- 1 large navel orange, finely chopped
- 3 1/2 cups diced rhubarb
- 3 cups sugar
- 4 1/2 cups juneberries
- Juice of 1 lemon
Combine orange, rhubarb and sugar in a Dutch oven. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Add juneberries and lemon juice. Boil, stirring frequently until thick, about 15 minutes. Pour into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe jar rims thoroughly. Seal and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Recipe by Juneberry Farm
Opportunity for New York
Growers and researchers see great potential for New York in these superfruits. For example, 95% of the elderberries consumed in the U.S. are imported from Europe, so there’s room for domestic market growth, Davis said.
Smith sees opportunities in commercial processing, because many of the superfruits have dark red juices that could be used as natural dyes.
“For people who have allergies or who just don’t want synthetic dyes in their foods, these could be used for juices, yogurt or other dairy products to create this beautiful purplish dye,” he said.
Native berries are also a great addition to farm stands and you-picks, Baker said.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity because they’re so high in nutrients and many people are very conscious of the quality of the food they’re eating,” she said. “Also, customers are becoming more open to other things than just strawberries and blueberries.”
“Part of our mission is just to educate people – growers and consumers – about what’s out there and available,” Davis said. “Because once you get a taste of it, you really get hooked.”
The specialty fruit nursery is funded by Cornell AES and by New York state through the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program.
Additional information for growers
- Scientific name: Amelanchier
- Also called: Serviceberry, Shadbush, Saskatoon
- Native to: North America
- Family: Rose
- Best-performing cultivars: Martin, Northline, Thiessen, JB30, Honeywood and Smoky (per Davis)
- Grows well in: sandy soils
- Scientific name: Lonicera caerulea
- Also called: Haskaps, blue honeysuckle
- Native to: Cold regions of Europe, Asia, and North America
- Family: Honeysuckle
- Best-performing cultivars: Tundra and Borealis (per Baker)
- Grows well in: clay soils
- Scientific name: Sambucus
- Native to: Europe and North America
- Family: Adoxaceae
- Grows well in: wide range of soils, including swampy; needs lots of water
- Scientific name: Aronia melanocarpa
- Also called: black chokeberry
- Native to: Northeastern U.S.
- Family: Rose
- Best-performing cultivars: Viking, Nero, Galicjanka, and Raintree Select (per Baker)
- Grows well in: moist, loamy soils with good drainage
Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.
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