Wait—you say you’ve never heard of saskatoons? Let’s try another name. How about serviceberry? Or Juneberry? Shadbush, anyone? The genus of these berries is Amelanchier, and there are many species throughout North America. Ours, Amelanchier alnifolia, is the most prized. It grows throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains and western Canada. The term saskatoon reputedly is a bastardization of the Cree Indian word misâskwatômina, which means “the fruit of the tree of many branches.”
This is a fair description. Saskatoon plants can be characterized as large shrubs or shrubby trees. A good one will be laden with berries. Ironically, in our region, those good ones are typically found in the same habitat as cultivated orchard trees, which command a healthy respect in the marketplace, while the wild and native saskatoon is a mostly forgotten plant that hangs on around the untended edges.
This may be changing. The word is getting out about saskatoons. Their berries (technically called pomes) have a complex flavor that is at once sweet and nutty, a little bit reminiscent of blueberries mixed with almonds. Local chefs are finding more and more ways to get them on menus around town, using them in pies and tarts, pickling them as a condiment for savory dishes or using them to make preserves. The berry’s small seeds are noticeable (think figs), but they add texture—or they can be removed with a food mill. Traditionally, saskatoons have been used mostly in desserts such as pies, tarts, crisps and the like. They’re also wonderful in other baked goods such as scones, and creative home cooks will find plenty of ways to incorporate their nuttiness into savory dishes (a saskatoon sauce poured over pan-seared duck comes to mind).
Though they’re known to grow in warm, exposed locales around Puget Sound, look for saskatoons in profusion on the east slopes of the Cascades and along country byways in sun-splashed river valleys where cherries, apples, pears and other sweet cash crops grow. The berries will be a striking mix of fuchsia and lavender colors (the darker they are, the riper), with little crowns on them sort of like those on blueberries. Although saskatoons aren’t especially tall—a big plant might approach 15 feet in height—a small stepladder is a handy tool for picking berries from the upper reaches.
Rich in antioxidants, saskatoons have a high nutritional value in addition to their complicated flavor. Most farmers and orchardists pay the plants no heed, leaving their fruit to the birds. You can pick your fill in no time, usually in late spring or early summer, depending on the exposure and elevation. So, grab a bucket and take a Sunday drive, whistling a happy tune, as you hunt the roadside for the wild saskatoon.
Drench your ice cream in saskatoon syrup
Recipe: Saskatoon Syrup
With just a few big handfuls of saskatoons, you can easily make a syrup to drizzle over ice cream or to spice up an adult beverage. A little extra simmer time and whisking will thicken the syrup without need of cornstarch or other thickeners. Saskatoons have noticeable seeds, so if you’re after a smooth sauce, just strain through a sieve.
2 cups saskatoon berries
1 cup water
¼ cup sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Lemon zest, to taste
Bring the berries and water to boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for several minutes. Whisk in sugar, lemon juice and zest. Continue to simmer and whisk until sauce is thickened to taste. Add more water if necessary. Experiment with port, vinegar or other ingredients to make a sauce for savory dishes, such as duck.