The ultimate in eating local has to be walking outside your door to a nearby bush and picking the food, walking home, and eating it. This is saskatoon season (from the Cree name Mis-sask-qua-too-mina). In case you are unfamiliar with these prairie delights, they are a close genetic relative of the common wild crab apple and prairie rose. They produce a blueberry sized fruit that is a deep blue-purple colour. The berries taste like blueberry and apple crossed with a hint of almond. They are filled with a very fine seed giving it a more crunchy texture than blueberries. They are sweeter and not as juicy as true blueberries. Nutritionally, saskatoons are a wonderful source of all kinds of great things including antioxidants, vitamin C and folate.
Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) are margin trees. They like wet places at the edge of marshes and forests that get a lot of sun but are protected from the wind and extreme weather. They are drought hardy and extreme cold tolerant though they usually react to drought by reducing the berry output for that year. The blossoms are not affected by a spring freeze the way apples are. In tests the blossoms can withstand cold up to -60C. The tolerate a wide variety of soil types, ph and elevations which is why they are so widespread in western Canada. The bushes are typically 2 metres high and spindly. Saskatoon bushes are inevitably skirted with poison ivy on the base. They bloom in early spring and the blossoms look and smell very much like apple blossoms. They produce fruit for about 3 weeks yielding multiple crops of berries.
It is no coincidence that the traditional First Nations sundance ceremony occurs when the saskatoon berries are ready. Without the saskatoons it is unlikely the prairies would be habitable. In the past the saskatoon was picked in great quantities by settlers and first nations people alike and dried for winter. Mixed into pemmican (dried meat flour), the result is near perfect food for sustaining humans through our long cold winters. The wood is also perfect for making arrows.
When I lived int he farm saskatoon season was a time for the farmwives to head out to their favourite berry picking spots and fill at least a 5 gallon pail full of the berries. They can made into cakes, jams, sauces, pie fillings, muffins and any other recipe you might find blueberries in. They also freeze extremely well. I have picked a lot of saskatoons over the years. How well I recall pulling out a package of frozen saskatoons in the dead of winter and for a moment being transported back to July’s summer heat. My son Alan was only 13 months old when he discovered saskatoons and while I picked at higher levels, he painstakingly picked berries at his level, a little eating machine cooing ‘num num num’ as he munched. This year I introduced my fellow campground host, who hails from the Phillipines originally, to the joys of saskatoons. She learned fast! She delivered tarts for us to try two evenings ago.
Over the last week I have been out picking berries and Dick also was picking. I made him a pie and the kitchen is filling with the scent of muffins as I write. The heat will soon start the saskatoons fermenting on the treetops and then we’ll see a comical result. Squirrels and birds love to eat the fermented fruit and they get drunk and silly. There is little that matches the hilarity of a drunken squirrel or an inebriated blue jay.
“The world is so full of a number of things [such as saskatoons], I ’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” Robert Louis Stevenson