Saskatoons! The precious prairie resource


I braced myself as I opened my freezer. I knew it was no use, though.

No matter how hard I tried not to look, my eyes simply wouldn’t cooperate. They would immediately dart to the shelf in the right-hand corner. What greeted me never failed to upset me, even after seeing it countless times. It wasn’t what was on the shelf; it’s what wasn’t.

That shelf is my saskatoon shelf, and it’s usually spilling over with multiple bags stuffed full of the glorious purple berries.

In August, right after saskatoon season, it’s always full to bursting. At the beginning of the following summer, after a winter full of baking and eating, it’s precariously close to empty. Just a single bag containing a few handfuls of berries remains.

Just as my supply is getting dangerously low, July rolls around. That is: saskatoon season. I happily trek off to a u-pick, multiple buckets in hand, and I pick to my heart’s content.

Until last year.

Last year, thanks to Covid, everything changed. Almost everything shut down, and that included my favourite saskatoon u-pick.

No u-pick meant no saskatoons.

It’s not that saskatoons weren’t available—they were. I could have driven to a number of u-picks to purchase pre-picked buckets. I also could have bought some from one of our many farmers’ markets (although getting into farmers’ markets came with its own issues).

And I could pick my own, close to home. Edmonton is blessed with a magnificent river valley full of a variety of interesting and surprising things, and you can find saskatoon bushes scattered between all the other trees and bushes. I did traipse through the ravine, not only finding enough to pick and eat to my heart’s content, but enough to throw a few days’ worth in the fridge as well. Not enough to freeze, though.

As much as I love saskatoons, I didn’t want saskatoons that someone else had picked. I wanted saskatoons that I had picked.

In the past, I had been the recipient of buckets of saskatoons that well-meaning people brought for me. But I always struggled with the quality of the berries, especially if the saskatoons came from my parents. The thought was sweet, but somehow I always ended up with the buckets my dad had picked. He didn’t exactly love picking, and he had a picking style that could only be described as fast and furious. It entailed grabbing a branch and then stripping practically everything on that branch straight into his pail—leaves, twigs, overripe berries, underripe berries and, as a bonus, a random assortment of bugs.

It took me forever to sort the berries. Hours spent sifting through two buckets would leave me with maybe a half pail of decent saskatoons. It wasn’t exactly rewarding.

My picking style is much more meticulous. Only the plumpest, ripest berries make it into my pail. If an errant underripe berry or a leaf finds its way in, it immediately gets plucked out. That way I never have to clean my saskatoons, I pick them clean.

Saskatoons are as much about the experience and the memories as they are about the berries themselves. I grew up picking saskatoons on our farm. We were lucky enough to have numerous bushes growing along the fence that marked the property line, and they supplied us with what seemed like an endless stream of saskatoons. It was a good 20-minute hike from our house, but that simply added to the adventure.

We would often make the trek just to pick a fresh bowl for breakfast. I liked mine mixed with freshly picked strawberries (located in the garden just outside our door) and doused with honey from the beekeeper next door. My mom adored drowning hers in thick, rich farm cream.

We ate fresh saskatoons and we baked with them—pies, cakes, muffins, pancakes, waffles, loaves, crisps. We made saskatoon smoothies, saskatoon ice cream and saskatoon jam. They were our blueberries.

Before the season was over, we would stuff our freezer full. (First we’d freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan and then, once they were frozen, dump into freezer bags. That way the berries don’t freeze in a clump and we could take out exactly what we needed.)

Once we left the farm, we started going to u-picks. After I left home, I branched out and tried a number of different u-picks.

I picked at places that had rows upon rows of saskatoons and nothing else, and I picked at places that had saskatoons and strawberries and pretty much everything else. There were places with dirt between the rows and there were places with grass. Some had just one type of saskatoon, while others had multiple varieties. Most assigned rows to pick, but a few didn’t.

I now have a favourite u-pick, Saskatoon Valley Orchards near Stony Plain. It’s not close and convenient, but it has so many other things going for it that the drive doesn’t matter. Besides, it gets me out of the city and the scenery is gorgeous.

Once there, I am greeted by what seems like endless saskatoons. And not just one variety, either. The bushes are loaded with Thiessens, Smokies and Northlines. Northlines are often the biggest and juiciest, but Smokies just might be the sweetest. I pick a mixture of all three—variety is always good, especially in pies.

The atmosphere is blissfully peaceful and quiet. You hear the birds chirping and the leaves rustling and that’s about it. I rarely run into anyone else while I’m picking and, if I do, there’s so much space I can simply move; not being assigned a particular row gives me the freedom to wander wherever I want.

I also feel welcome there. One year, the owner was in the middle of pickling saskatoons and she let me take a peek—they are her family’s answer to cranberry sauce come Thanksgiving. There’s also a friendly resident dog who will check in on you periodically. He never tires of munching on the low-growing berries while he keeps you company.

So, I go and I wander. I pick here and there and I am utterly content. It’s one of my happy places. Once I get home I munch away until I’m just shy of bursting and then I stuff my freezer full.

I am cautiously optimistic that, come end of July, you will find me elbow deep in saskatoons, furiously picking once again. It would make both me and my freezer very happy.

Jan Hostyn’s tongue is often stained purple for much of July thanks to her copious saskatoon consumption.

Excellent Sour Cream Saskatoon Muffins
These muffins are wonderful with any kind of fruit. We make them with the higher amount of sugar, but you can reduce it if you want. Don’t be surprised if they take longer to bake than the time listed below—we find they usually do. Sometimes we sprinkle a simple streusel on top of the muffins before baking, but they certainly don’t need it.

½ c butter, room temperature
1-1½ c sugar
2¾ c flour
1 t baking soda
½ t salt
Pinch nutmeg
4 eggs, beaten
1½ c sour cream
1 t vanilla
1½ c saskatoons

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Cream butter, sugar and salt until light, about 3 minutes. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Stir together the eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with the sour cream mixture. Start and end with the flour mixture, mixing gently after each addition (do 3 additions of the flour and 2 additions of the sour cream mixture). Do not overmix. Stir in the saskatoons.

Scoop into a muffin cup-lined muffin tin and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Place in 400°F oven and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Prairie Treat Pie
This is the recipe my mom always made. I often make it in a deep-dish pie pan and use 6 cups of saskatoons instead of 4. When I do that, I increase the rest of the ingredients by 50 per cent. We like our saskatoon pies on the sweeter side, so I always use the higher amount of sugar. This pie is excellent warm and topped with vanilla ice cream.

4 c saskatoons
2 T water
1 T lemon juice
1 t lemon zest
1-1½ c sugar
1 T instant tapioca
1 T butter
Pastry for a double crust (9” pie)

Preheat oven to 425ºF.

Wash the berries and place in a saucepan. Add water, juice and zest. Simmer about 10 min (do not boil). Add sugar and tapioca and allow to cool.

Pour into pastry-lined pie plate, and dot with butter. Cover with a top crust, seal edges.

Mix together 1 egg and 1 tbsp water. Brush top with egg mixture and sprinkle with sugar (and cinnamon if you’d like).

Bake for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350ºF. Bake for another 30 minutes, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling.