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

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  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!



19 comments:

  1. This is quite intriguing! I've never heard of Wonderberry before.

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  2. I hadn't heard of it either but decided to give it a try when I saw that it was developed by Luther Burbank. It's easy to grow and worth trying at least once. :-)

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  3. What an interesting story Laure! And I bet that jam is yummy! Hey you know what? I just thought of something. You should come to my house in Roseville sometime and I will give you some cuttings of whatever you want for your terrariums or garden. We live in the same town. Duh!

    And have you ever tried Gooseberries. This weekend we are gong to a cabin up in the hills and we think the Gooseberries will be ripe for picking! They are the pokiest things but the jelly is sooooo awesome.

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  4. I would love to come over to see your special gardens. I'll send you an email.

    I've tried Gooseberry jam and absolutely love the taste. Unfortunately, the gooseberry grows best at higher elevations otherwise I'd have some in my garden, pricklies and all!

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    Replies
    1. we have gooseberries in Missouri - some years better than others, but they grow easily

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  5. Hi Laurie. I loved learning about the Wonderberry and how to make it into jam. You have a lovely site with pictures that make me want to start a garden of my own. But I won't because I've been there and realize gardens take a lot of work, time, and LOVE. It seems you have lots of the third ingredient here. I look forward to reading future articles. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise. Oh, by the way, I discovered you as a fellow Sacramento Connect blogger. Nice to meet you.

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  6. Hi Margaret--It's great to hear your comments about my blog. I'm still a bit of a newbie with blogs and sometimes it takes me a little while to put together each post but I want to be able to give you the best information I have about making your gardens succeed. In fact, you could actually grow some things in large pots, if you don't have a lot of time or space. I ended up doing that when I quickly ran out of garden space. Veggies included my tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, a pumpkin, and the Wonderberry. I'll try to do a blog on what I learned this year growing all season in pots, along with the upcoming blogs about my final summer harvests. Don't give up on gardening, no matter how small your space. Thank you for joining my site! :-)

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  7. I wondered what those weeds were that were coming up in my garden .... and the ones that came up late actually went to seed..... only to produce more "wonder berries". Now I can stop wondering. Thanks for the information

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  8. It is my mothers 100th birthday next month and she always talks about how good the wonder berry jam was and I would like to purchase a jar of wonder berry jam for her. Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated.
    Charles Myers----cmyers59102@gmail.com
    406-697-9138

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  9. I am so happy that I came across this web site. I haven't had Wonder Berries in over 30 years. I would love to plant a few bushes in my garden.

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    1. I too have not had wonder berries for many years. I remember my mother and her sisters would grow them and they would make the jam. It was so good. I'm glad to have come across this website too. I want to plant some of these bushes too,

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  10. Wonderberries grow wild in Zimbabwe. I have both wild plants and some grown from bought 'heirloom' seed and they are exactly the same thing. Nice to find a use for them tho.. thanx

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  11. Hi to everybody, here everyone is sharing such knowledge, so it’s fastidious to see this site, and I used to visit this blog daily. Gabrielle

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  12. I grew up on wonderberry everything! My great grandma brought seeds from the German settlements of Russia in the early 1900's. It was a staple in all our desserts.

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  13. This looks like Black Nightshade (the non-poisonous kind) or Garden Huckleberry. I'm going to try this recipe with a few wild blackberries thrown in for good measure!

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  14. Hi! We got some wonderberry seeds from Baker's and can't wait to see them start growing. :)

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  15. Wonder berries have been in my family since the 1930's as it was what they had for dessert, my grandmother would have a large garden and always wonder berries. I like to make wonder berries for to put on my pancakes (wow)instead of syrup anytime. 1 cup of sugar to 4 cups of wonder berries, put on stove & cook to however thick or thin you like and then, oh my gosh it is great.

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  16. I am the only one left of my family that still has wonder berry seeds. I haven't raised any for 2 years. When I would pick a bunch I would put water in a bowl, pour in the berries (don't pour water on the berries as it will break them as they are very tender) then scoop them out into the pan. Then pour off the water leaving the seeds in the bottom of the bowl, then pour out the seeds onto a paper towel & let dry. When dry scrape of into a bottle to keep.

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  17. Hello,

    I noticed you have a photos of wonderberry on your website. If this is an original photo it would be eligible to win a prize in our scavenger hunt photo contest. We have an ongoing scavenger hunt for over 100 items and wonderberry is on our list. More details on our contest can be found here:
    http://blog.gardeningknowhow.com/scavenger-hunt/featured-scavenger-hunt-christmas-cactus-aerial-roots/

    Thanks and hope to see you in our competition!

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