Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Wonderful Wonderberry

Part of the excitement of growing your own food is trying out some plants you haven’t tasted before.  We all love to try new varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini’s, peppers, melons and other easy to grow vegetables to experience the range of different flavors available from our fresh, homegrown produce.  So it was a pleasant surprise to find a plant that could bowl me over with a flavor unlike anything else I had ever tasted.  It was the historic heirloom: ‘Wonderberry’.

Luther Burbank
I came across the Wonderberry in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog for 2011 earlier this year when I was putting together my seed orders.  The first thing that caught my eye was the botanical name of Solanum burbankii.  It was related to the tomato, AND it was developed by plant breeder Luther Burbank who developed the ‘Burbank’ tomato, my all time favorite.  On researching the plant, it turned out that the Wonderberry was the center of a very heated debate in the early 1900’s after Burbank sold the rights to the seeds to nursery agent John Lewis Childs in 1909, who changed the name from Burbank’s ‘Sunberry’, to his own ‘Wonderberry’.  Childs then brashly promoted it with outlandish claims as:

"Luther Burbank's greatest and newest production. Fruit blue-black like an enormous rich blueberry.  Unsurpassed for eating ... in any form. The greatest garden fruit ever introduced .... Easiest plant in the world to grow, succeeding anywhere and yielding great masses of rich fruit."

Prominent American horticulturists and plant scientists from as far as Kew Gardens in England stated that it was nothing more than a common weed (Solanum nigrum) or black nightshade. And newspapers across the country had a field day trying to discredit both Childs and Burbank.  Finally, in the late 1950’s, the ‘Wonderberry’ was proven to be a separate species, with seed roots in Africa, but not until the plant had vanished from commerce for decades in the wake of the controversy.  It’s now making a comeback as more gardeners give it a try.

The front of the seed packet I received from Baker Creek had a painted drawing instead of a photograph, so I had little idea what the plant was going to look like in the garden.  I planted the seeds on May 1, 2011 and by the end of June they had grown to small bushes with tiny white flowers.  By the end of July they had grown up to 3 feet and needed to be staked.  I tasted the first shiny black berries about a week later. They were watery with a slight tomato taste and very little sweetness.  I was not impressed.  But just a little over two weeks later that all changed.  The berries were no longer shiny but had a dull cast to them.  The tops of the petals holding each berry were a light yellow color instead of green.  The flavor of the berries was much improved and they were sweeter.   It was time to pick.

I looked for recipes on the Internet and found the most common way the Wonderberry was being used was as a jam.  I printed a few recipes for reference then went out with a cottage cheese carton to pick all the berries.   

Picking wonderberrys is completely different from picking other berries.  If you grasp the individual berry and pull, you’ll likely end up with squashed berry innards all over your fingers.  Instead, you gently roll the berries with your fingers and they will come right off the stem and fall into your hand.  Place a container under a cluster and the berries readily drop in as you roll them.  There will still be green berries on most of the clusters.  These will not come off if you roll them, and need to be left on the plant to ripen.

By the time I had rolled most of the black berries off the stems, I had about 1 ¼ cups of fruit.  Once in the kitchen, I poured the berries onto a paper towel spread in a large roasting pan to weed out any tiny bugs that may have fallen in and to pick out any green berries and plant debris.  Then the berries went into a strainer where they were gently washed.

For the jam recipe I used orange peel as a thickener since it contains a natural pectin in the white pith.  The orange peel gives the jam a very slight orange flavor note.  Lemon peel can also be used.  

I made the jam as a “refrigerator” jam since there’s just not enough to bother processing in a hot water bath to store away—it will be eaten way too soon.  But you will still need a sterilized jar to pour the finished jam into.  You can process the jar for storage if you wish, following standard canning procedures.

Wonderberry Jam

1 cup wonderberrys (I used all of what I picked, a little over a cup)

1/3 cup sugar

Peel of ¼ of a medium orange, including the white pith.  Cut this into long thin strips about ¼ “ wide.

Half-pint mason jar with lid, sterilized in a hot water bath


  1. Place all ingredients in a small kettle and bring the heat up to medium. 

  1. Stir well as berries begin breakdown. 

  1. Turn heat up to a medium-high.

  1. Press the berries with the back of your spoon as you stir to break them down.

  1. Continue to stir and press the berries until the jam comes to a low boil.

  1. Turn the heat down to simmer and let the jam continue to slowly cook for about 45 minutes or until the liquids have reduced by at least 1/3 of original amount.  Stir occasionally.

  1. Turn off the heat.

  1. Remove the orange peels with tongs and set aside to cool on a plate.  These are delicious once cooled down.

  1. Remove the sterilized jar from the hot water bath and pour in the jam.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Wonderberry Jam has sweetness similar to a grape jam but a decidedly different flavor.  It's absolutely delicious on an English muffin or a slice of toast with butter.  Spread on a generous spoonful of this dark amethyst colored jam and relish the WONDERful flavor of the Wonderberry!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mid-Season Harvests in My Sacramento Garden

It’s mid-season harvest time and the vegetable garden has been thriving, despite the unseasonably cool summer—and maybe because of it.    The front-runners are the vegetables with “big” seeds that were initially planted in 4” pots and allowed to grow until rooted enough to transplant.  They included the banana squash, bush bean, cucumbers, pumpkins and zucchini.

Banana Squash—I’ve always wanted to try banana squash, not so much because I like to eat it, which I don’t, but because of the novelty of the huge fruit it makes.  The vines of my banana squash have grown very long and taken over a lot of garden space, as expected, with one vine that found a way to climb up a bush next to the fence and is heading over to the other side of the fence into the neighbors yard (lucky them!).  It took 5 weeks before the plants produced the first female flower, with the first squash now over 19” long and growing.  There are a couple more little yellow torpedoes starting to grow now but the plants seem reluctant to produce anymore female flowers.  That’s okay, because I think we have enough; there’s no room for more.

Bush Bean ‘Nugget’—these plants started out with sparse growth and weak stems resulting in the bushes flopping over with watering or in the wind.  About 3 weeks into their growth I packed a solid 3-inches of mulch all around them to help keep the soil moist and hold up the plants.  I also fed them with fish emulsion every week.  In less than 2 weeks the plants had grown fuller, the bushes were standing up straight, and beans were forming on all the stems.  I picked the first cream-yellow beans a week after for soup and have been harvesting every 5-7 days since.  The bushes are pretty much finished and I could start some more if I wanted to since they have an average harvest time of 52 days.  But I think I’ll wait till next year.  The beans are good in soup and vegetable stews.  The taste is very mild.

Cucumber ‘Marketmore 76’—this cucumber gets both thumbs up for ease of growth, prolific fruiting, and delicious taste.  The roots in the 4” pots were very well formed at the time of planting and the plants had their first bloom just a week after planting in the garden bed.  I set up a trellis line for the vines and they were attaching readily.  The first cucumber began to form by the third week, and by the forth week I was picking.  From then on, the vines began to flower nonstop with little baby cukes showing up every day.  I’ve been harvesting cucumbers every 3-5 days.  These cucumbers are big and solid with a clean, slightly sweet flavor and not a hint of bitterness.  They can be picked between 6 and 9 inches and are usually straight, but can be curved.  Take two cucumbers, peel, slice thin and cover with rice vinegar mixed with about 2 tablespoons of sugar,  ½ teaspoon of salt, and a dribble of sesame oil.  Nummers!

Cucumber ‘Green Slam’—compared to the ‘Marketmore 76’, this cucumber is a disappointment.  The transplants struggled from the time they were put in the bed next to ‘Marketmore 76’ and only by packing a thick mulch around them, did they finally start to put on growth.  I had to help them attach to the trellis as the vines grew.  The small leaves also wilted severely in the heat which meant pouring supplemental water around them every afternoon.  I don’t think the plants put down very long roots to get at moisture deeper in the soil.  The cucumbers are small and I picked the first one about 7 weeks after planting.  These cukes should be picked at about 6 inches.  The flesh is dryer than ‘Marketmore 76’ and the taste is very mild.  It does have fewer seeds.  When I grow this cucumber again to use up the seed, I’ll plant it in a tub where I can set it in a spot with afternoon shade and see how it does.  I think ‘Green Slam’ may be better suited to coastal climates rather than the hot Sacramento Valley conditions. 

Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’—I planted 3 4-inch pots at the end of the corn bed right around the end of May.  They have been growing vigorously since that time and have begun to grow along the woven trellis around the corn--even growing over the top of the corn patch.  I checked the vines in vain every morning for over 7 weeks for female flowers; male flowers all over the place, but no females.  Then one day 2 weeks ago, I moved a leaf aside and, there it was, the first little pumpkin, looking like a creamy marshmallow at the end of the stem.  It reached about 4 inches in diameter and colored a deep orange this week —ready to pick.  It’s so cute.  It sits right in the palm of my hand.  And, wonder of wonders!  There are more female flowers showing up and more creamy chunks growing on the vines.  Fingers crossed, I’ll have a bushel by October!


Zucchini ‘Revenue’—what can you say about zucchini?  It pretty much grows itself.  You just have to find homes for all the zukes as they seem to explode off the bushes all at once.  ‘Revenue’ is a really good variety.  The plant stays fairly bushy with a shape around 3’x 3’ with very slight vining.  Two bushes are plenty for two people.  The color is a medium green (see the sample in the basket above) and it has a nice, clean taste that works well in scrambled eggs, creamy soups, mixed vegetable stews or chopped in salads.  I was a little worried when the bushes stopped producing at the end of August, but they started putting out more zukes about a week later.  Needless to say, the production is starting to get out of hand again.  Time to dig out my Zucchini Bread recipe.