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Eastern Asia's contribution to hardy fruit development the common & the exotic.

Occasionally, winter hardy forms of standard fruits show up, as was the case with Evans Cherry. But most varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries that we grow on the Prairies are the result of deliberate efforts to produce well-adapted plants bearing good quality fruit. Over the past 100 years, there have been remarkable improvements in the quality of prairie hardy fruits. Have you ever wondered about their origins?

When settlers first came to the Canadian Prairies from Ontario, the United States or Europe, they found that the fruit trees they brought with them would not survive the harsh winters. In 1887 Dr. William Saunders imported seed of the Siberian Crab Apple (Malus baccata) from Russia and began a project to develop crab apples for the Prairies. Varieties introduced from Russia and hybrids of them have provided the basis for the development of winter hardy varieties.

Among the first generation hybrids were Osman, Columbia and Sylvia --significant improvements over the Siberian Crab Apple and having the necessary winter hardiness to survive on the prairies. With each subsequent generation of breeding, trees with the hardiness inherited from Siberian Crab Apple have produced better quality and larger fruit. Patterson, Carlos Queen, Fall Red, September Ruby, Norkent and Prairie Magic[R] are worlds apart in quality from the original first generation hybrids. All will thrive in the more favourable areas of the Prairies; some will survive to Zone 2b. All derive their winter hardiness from the Siberian crab.

Early hybridization between the native sandcherry (Prunus besseyi) and the Japanese Plum (P. salicina) produced Opata and Sapa, with fruit that was good for fresh eating and excellent for jam and preserves. A number of second generation seedlings of these varieties were raised that had some advantages to the original hybrids. Among those still available are Manor from the Morden Research Station, Beta from the University of Saskatchewan, and Convoy, developed by Boughen Nurseries of Valley River, Manitoba.

Selections of two native plum species, Prunus nigra and P. americana, were important fruit cultivars in the past. These had good size, but only fair fruit quality for flesh eating. The varieties Bounty and Dandy are still available.

Varieties of the Manchurian form of Japanese Plum (P. salicina) are excellent for flesh eating. The introduction in the 1930s of a series of these plums from L.V. Ptitsin of Harbin, Manchuria (now a part of China) gave gardeners a number of plums with excellent flavour for flesh eating. Ptitsin # 10 and # 12 are still available in the nursery trade. Seedlings of these and the Russian variety, Ivanovka have given us a number of P. salicina varieties. Brookgold, Brookred, and Fofonoff (syn. Homesteader) are quite popular and commercially available.

In 1923, Dr. N.E. Hansen of the Experimental Station at Brookings, South Dakota introduced Pembina, a hybrid of P. salicina with Canada Plum (P. nigra). In 1960, Dr. Patterson introduced a series of selections from his breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan: Patterson's Pride, Prairie, Geddes, Perfection (syn. Superb), Elite and Supreme are still available. These plums are larger than the Manchurian P. salicina varieties and have excellent flavour for flesh eating.

With the possible exception of Evans Cherry, the most winter hardy sour cherries (P. cerasus) are not quite hardy enough to be reliable on the Prairies. In the 1940s Les Kerr crossed Northstar, a Minnesota variety of P. cerasus with the Mongolian Bush Cherry, P. fruticosa. In the 1970s work began at the University of Saskatchewan with this hybrid and back crosses to P. cerasus to give hybrids with 75% P. cerasus and 25% P. fruticosa genetics. The first cultivar, SK Carmine Jewel, has been grown on the Prairies since 1999. Five new cultivars from this breeding have now been released--Cupid, Romeo, Juliette, Crimson Passion and Valentine (see article, p. 21).

Pyrus ussuriemis, Manchurian Pear, is used as a hardy rootstock and as an early blooming ornamental. The fruit quality of the species is variable, but most have hard gritty fruit that is only useful as fruit for wildlife (bears come to clean up my fruit once they fall to the ground). This winter hardy species has been a factor in the breeding of pears with better quality fruit. Ure from the Morden Research Centre and Early Gold from Jeffries Nurseries produce fruit with good flavour, while University of Saskatchewan varieties John and Thomas have good size and are suitable for flesh eating and preserving. Another generation of breeding in pears would have a good possibility to produce seedlings with a combination of larger size, good flavour and winter hardiness.

Canadian fruit breeders have used their ingenuity and the genetics of Siberian Crab Apple, Manchurian Pear, the Manchurian form of Japanese Plum and Mongolian Bush Cherry to produce quality fruit on the Prairies. But are there other fruits from Eastern Asia with potential for the Prairies?

Manchurian Apricot (Prunus mandshurica) varieties such as Westcot produce fruit in the more favourable areas. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is being produced in prairie orchards, and although the species is difficult to harvest, new varieties from the PFRA Shelterbelt Centre are adapted to mechanical harvesting (see article, p. 132). Edible honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea vat. edulis) varieties are being grown with new varieties from the University of Saskatchewan, and I will personally attest that the fruit makes very tasty jam.

Other possibilities might come from Amur Grape (Vitis amurensis), Large-fruited Hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida var. major), and hardy kiwi species (Actinidia arguta & A. kolomikta).

Asian genetics and Canadian ingenuity have greatly expanded the variety of fruit that we can grow in our Prairie gardens.

Hugh Skinner, a graduate of the University of Manitoba horitculture program (1972), has worked for P.F.R.A and operated the family nursery. He is a past writer for The Prairie Garden and a recipient of its Award of Excellence. In recent years he has been involved in the development of a self-guided arboretum trail on the Skinner property near Roblin, Manitoba.
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Author:Skinner, Hugh
Publication:Prairie Garden
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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