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We couldn’t be more grateful – there is a (heavy) fruit-bearing bush that has invaded our yard, and keeps spreading. “Organic” and healthy, no work required from our part, handy and sweet.

I hope the bears don’t read this column, in fact we should keep this just among ourselves, humans. We don’t need more competition – we already have to share the spontaneous berry crop with all the critters of the family – dogs, chickens, pigeons, doves, and even some naughty squirrels. You guessed – it is the Saskatoon!

Since this bush grows mostly in thickets, it provides a good wildlife habitat and cover for mammals, and nesting birds. Deer, elk and moose enjoy the tips of the branches and leaves, while grouse eat the buds in winter. The berries are important for other birds, who spread the seeds with their droppings.

Amelanchier alnifolia, a resilient, winter-hardy plant native to North America, is known under many names: Pacific serviceberry, alder-leaf shadbush or dwarf shadbush, western juneberry or the pigeon berry, to name a few. The most common name, “Saskatoon” derives from a Cree noun – misâskwatômina, or “mis-ask-quah-toomina (saskatoonberry). And, yes, the city of Saskatoon was named after these berries, not the other way around.

These fruits were well and long enjoyed by native populations fresh, dried, or even mixed with dried meat. They also valued the fruit as a trade item or in sacred ceremonies.  Saskatoon berries were the most important plant food for the prairie Blackfoot tribes. They made arrow shafts from the hard wood, and used the plant in many medicines. By contrast, on the other side of the ocean, just a few years ago the Britain’s Food Standards Agency withdrew saskatoon berries from the local markets in fear that they might be poisonous, claiming that there’s no history of people in Europe eating Saskatoons. You see, the modern man needs the blessing of the official agencies to comprehend nature’s gifts.

Saskatoon is part of the rose family, which includes apples, cherries, plums and, of course, roses. The fruit we call a berry is actually a pome fruit, just like the apple! It grows in all provinces and territories in Canada, and across most of the US.

In fact these berries are very nutritious, and proven to contain large amounts of vitamins, such as B2 (riboflavin), biotin and beta-carotene, fiber, minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese.

Not surprisingly, they are similar to blueberries in terms of nutrient profile, and blueberries are among the best and healthier fruits out there. You can add the fruits to cereals, make jam, wine, cider and even beer! Not that I have the time to make all these, as we prefer the fresh fruits, generally. We also freeze as much as possible for the winter.

The most valuable components in Saskatoon berries are the polyphenols, which function as potent antioxidants and antiaging substances. Modern studies have shown that these phenols have beneficial health effects by reducing age-associated oxidative stress and possessing anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation, which seems to be so prevalent today, is the root of most “modern” diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and others. The best way to delay or stop these ailments is to ingest beneficial plants with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, such as berries (recognized as the best fruits). Significantly, recent research indicates that Saskatoon has higher levels of antioxidants compared to the other berries such as wild blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Also, Saskatoon has been shown to have antidiabetic properties.

The benevolent serviceberries well deserve their name: “Few children who grew up in northern British Columbia or on the prairies during the hungry ’30′s will forget the Saskatoon, for they picked countless quarts of the fruit to eat fresh or bottle for winter use . . . This was, quite literally, the only fruit that many families knew during the period of the Depression.” -L.J. Clark. 1976. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Gray’s Publishing, Sidney, BC.

As the fame of Saskatoon has truly grown recently, its cultivation – due to decorative and high nutritious values – has been gaining in popularity in Europe and beyond.