University of Saskatchewan

September 17, 2014   

Berry Researcher Sees the Fruits of His Labour

Vanier scholarship recipient Eric Gerbrandt tends to a crop of blue honeysuckles in B.C.’s Fraser Valley (Photo Credit: Amanda Rallings)
July 03, 2012

By Lisa Buchanan

A University of Saskatchewan plant science student has been awarded the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship to adapt the blue honeysuckle berry to grow in a warmer climate.

“It’s an area of research that is wide open and there are exciting new things that can be done,” says PhD student Eric Gerbrandt whose Vanier scholarship will provide $50,000 a year for up to three years of study. The federal scholarship is one of the most highly coveted in the country.

Though not widely known, the blue honeysuckle, also known as the haskap, has the potential to become a popular and valuable new fruit crop thanks to its special flavour and health benefits such as antioxidants.

Though the shape and flavor of the berries depend on the variety, they can look like oblong blueberries and have a unique flavour sometimes described as a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry. The berries can be eaten fresh, as well as used in baking, jams and jellies, and smoothies.

Raised in British Columbia, Gerbrandt was drawn to the U of S in part because it’s home to one of the world’s most diverse collections of blue honeysuckle, with varieties from Russia, Japan, and the Kuril Islands as well as wild plants from nine Canadian provinces.

Blue honeysuckles are currently grown in cooler climates. To become a mainstream fruit, it must be adapted to grow in warmer regions.

“We know the blue honeysuckle does well in Saskatchewan, but we want to know how it would do in warmer areas or if the trend of global warming continues,” says assistant professor of plant science Bob Bors who supervises Gerbrandt’s research along with Canada Research Chair Ravi Chibbar.

Adapting the plant to grow in warmer areas will mean more people can grow it. Crops are more likely to be successful if they can be grown in many regions. That success contributes to the demand for the crop because buyers know they can count on the fruit’s availability.

Gerbrandt is figuring out what range of blue honeysuckle genetic resources are best suited for production in the temperate climate of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley—the most productive berry-growing region in Canada.

“Eric’s research will help us to understand more of the genetic variability of the blue honeysuckle and the adaptation of the plant to warmer areas,” Bors says.

Gerbrandt will monitor the most important plant and fruit traits to evaluate their adaptation to the warmer climate, as well as their marketability and health benefits.

During his undergraduate years at the University of the Fraser Valley, Gerbrandt studied general biology as well as livestock production, but decided he prefers plants to animals and shifted his focus to horticulture. He has worked as a berry farmer and as a consultant and researcher in the berry industry. All his experiences in genetics, botany, and field work made graduate studies in fruit breeding a logical next step.

There is limited fruit research at Canadian universities. When Gerbrandt was considering graduate schools, he wanted to go where he could devote his time to studying fruit and remain as close as he could to the Fraser Valley where his research is based. This drew him to the U of S which has one of the most active university fruit breeding programs in Canada.

U of S researchers have been carefully breeding and selecting cold hardy plants for superior fruit quality and yield for more than 90 years. The U of S is well known for developing the first dwarf sour cherry which was released in 1999 and bred specifically for the Prairies.

“It is encouraging to see the government supporting research in agriculture,” Gerbrandt says. “It means Canada values projects in agriculture that will provide Canadians with foods that have high health value and promote sustainable production and food security.”

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Lisa Buchanan is a graduate student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.

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