It's purple-tongue time! Manitoba saskatoon berry farms enjoying bumper crop

Despite a dry spring that stunted strawberries, many Manitoba U-pick farms are reporting a fantastic crop of saskatoon berries, the quintessential Prairie fruit.

So which of the 26 registered varieties is your favourite?

Wendy Rutherford of Rutherford Farms near Grosse Isle on her saskatoon orchard. She co-owns a Manitoba saskatoon experimental farm. (Bill Redekop/CBC)

Health authorities are warning of a strange affliction sweeping through Manitoba that turns people's tongues a dark shade of purple.

In severe cases, individuals display purple-stained mouths and hands, too.

Ah, saskatoon berry season is back.

It's that time of year when the luscious berry native to the Prairies ripens into a deep blue-purple hue for making pies, jams or just to roll into your mouth.

"It's the litmus taste among Prairie people," said Doug Langrell, who grows about 20 acres near Warren, north of Winnipeg. "Ask someone which are better, blueberries or saskatoons, and if they say saskatoons, they're a Prairie person."

But while many Manitobans consider themselves connoisseurs of the purple fruit, of which most of the world is ignorant, did you know Manitoba has an experimental saskatoon farm? And did you know it grows 11 different varieties of saskatoon?

Did you know there are 11 different varieties of saskatoon?

Doug Langrell, a grower with Interlake Saskatoons, at the experimental saskatoon farm near Stonewall. Langrell sells pre-picked saskatoons at PurpleFit in Warren. (Bill Redekop/CBC)

In fact, there are 26 registered varieties, said Langrell, who started the privately owned experimental farm in 2006 with two other saskatoon grower families who form a company called Interlake saskatoons.

They are not grafted, or cross-bred, or genetically modified varieties. They are natural varieties that adapted in nature to niche growing conditions over the millennia in different parts of Western Canada and some northern states.

In the 1980s, University of Saskatchewan plant breeder Richard St. Pierre solicited farmers to send him samples of some of their best saskatoon bushes. Now many saskatoon varieties bear the names of some those farmers like Martin, Thiessen and JB30.

JB30 is an especially interesting saskatoon, named after Saskatchewan farmer, Jarvis Blushke, who submitted shrubs from along the North Saskatchewan River that he'd transplanted onto his farm. He has since copyrighted the variety and now sells 40,000 rooted cuttings per year. Pop a few JB30 berries into your mouth at the experimental farm and you'll understand why.

Explode in your mouth

A tour of the experimental farm, located near Stonewall, is like being locked in an musty French wine cellar with just a glass and corkscrew. You're sampling the best the fruit has to offer.

The Pembina saskatoon is a sweeter variety most people are familiar with because it grows wild over much of Manitoba.

But also well-known is the Smokey because it's grown at the majority of Manitoba U-pick farms. The Smokey is probably the sweetest saskatoon with less pulp or tartness than other varieties.

The Parkhill is from Michigan and only grows knee-high but is also quite sweet. The Martin from Saskatchewan is a plumper berry whereas the taste of Thiessen saskatoons seems to explode in your mouth. Honeywood saskatoons are very popular in Saskatchewan.

The Northline is just one of many varieties of saskatoon that grow across the Prairies. (Bill Redekop/CBC)

Langrell is partial to Northline saskatoons. They have a slight tartness and are firmer, which makes them better for machine harvesting for the processing sector. Langrell sells pre-picked Northline saskatoons at his outlet PurpleFit Saskatoon Berries on Railway Avenue in Warren, Man.

The experimental farm demonstrates the hardiness of different varieties but also their yields, response to fertilization and non-fertilization, and resistance to local pests and diseases, Langrell said.

Why are saskatoons called saskatoons, like the Saskatchewan city, and not Winnipegs or Brandons? It's actually a Cree word and part of a phrase meaning "bush that grows straight," said Langrell. The city of Saskatoon is named after the berry.

A multi-purpose shrub

The Cree used saskatoons for a variety of purposes including medicine and flavouring in pemmican. They also used the straight stalks as shafts for arrows, Langrell said. A saskatoon shrub will last 50 to 70 years.

Meanwhile, many saskatoon U-pick farms are reporting a fantastic crop this year unlike the troubles with strawberries. The dry spring didn't stunt the saskatoons as their deep root systems allow them to survive drought better than most weeds, Langrell said.

Brent Wolfe, of the Purple Berry Orchard on the West Perimeter Highway, said his crop is at least a third larger than last year. "We had a very strong bloom and missed out on the late frost," he said.

Wendy Rutherford, of Rutherford Farms near Grosse Isle, said her orchard is about 50 per cent larger than a year ago. She expects the crop will total about 30,000 pounds.

Rutherford said there is no extra charge to patrons found leaving the premises with purple tongues; nor are there weigh-ins before and after to determine how many pails were devoured during picking.


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