I’ve had a lot of explaining to do over the past twelve years. This is the period of time that I’ve been an Oregonian living outside of Oregon, and Angelenos and New Yorkers alike have been curious: what is Oregon about?
This question is usually my cue to lie in order to justify my own inappropriateness – “We all eat really fast” – or refute misconceptions – “No, I’m not from Portland; “Beavers, not Ducks.” But in the event I summon something honest about my home state that I own, that I’m proud of, unrelated to foundational racism, hipsters, or weed, I come to one thing:
Oregon blackberries are…ridiculous.
Depending on whom you ask, Oregon accounts for 85 – 100% of the blackberry, boysenberry, and black raspberry production in the U.S. – our 6,900 acres could cover half of Manhattan in dark, sweet cane fruit: just like in my dreams. In fact, by the time I bid it adieu in 2005, the state was the second leading producer of blackberries on the planet, behind – of course – Serbia.
But is it just luck of our draw with climate and terroir? You know, like California got with everything else? No. No, it’s not.
It’s because we loved the berries so much we invented our own.
USDA-ARS & Oregon State University Cooperative Breeding Program
In my hometown of Corvallis, just 15 minutes from my doorstep by roller blade, one of Oregon’s most defining initiatives began in 1927, with the establishment of a blackberry breeding cooperative between the USDA-Agricultural Research Center and Oregon State University.
Now, I know what you’r thinking and no, we didn’t invent the game. While the Corvallis station is one of the nation’s oldest, by the time it was founded, there were successful programs already in operation, notably in Beltsville, Maryland, at the USDA-ARS headquarters, at the University of Arkansas, and in New York State.
Why breed berries anyway?
Oh, so many reasons! Early berry breeding programs through the USDA focused on strawberries and established the baseline objectives of high yield, great flavor, and ability to be machine-harvested (in a word: commercialization).
Blackberries from the beginning were a tougher challenge – thanks a lot, thorns – and breeding started largely on the grassroots, private citizen hobbyist level. After a few key trailblazers, though, several USDA-ARS berry breeding cooperatives were established, and included the key objectives of thornless-ness, cold-hardiness, and disease-resistance.
But while commercial blackberry breeding has been popular for over a century, paramount to the incredible flavor of many varietals today is actually the unique mating habits of berries in the wild. This includes but is not limited to:
- Wild native breeds hooking up with wild invasive breeds
- Wild blackberries hooking up with wild raspberries
- Wild blackberries having one kid by two wild raspberries
Wild berries, indeed.
So when does Oregon blow up?
Enter George Waldo: part-time Oregonian and full-time berry O.G. In the late ’20’s and early ’30’s, Waldo was leading the berry breeding program at the Glenn Dale, Maryland station when the opportunity arose for something of a homecoming. Having spent many years of his youth in Dayton, Oregon, Waldo jumped at the opportunity to swap positions with his Pacific Northwest counterpart, George Darrow. In 1932 he did just that, and immediately upon arrival in true Oregon fashion he declared that the berries needed to be sweeter and less acidic.
Waldo’s home court advantage notwithstanding, Oregon and in particular the Willamette Valley is recognized for its mild winters, warm-day-cool-night summers, and almost no rain during the harvest season, with just a tenth of an inch average during that period. It’s the same magical combination that produces the world-renowned Pinot Noirs of the region.
Thanks to these key factors, Oregon berries are often described as sweet, complex, rich, and aromatic. This is also how most Oregonians themselves are described.
The world’s most popular blackberry is born
Waldo began his benevolent match-making, arriving first at the smaller but flavorful Chehalem blackberry in 1936. A separate varietal came in 1950 from parents with a stronger raspberry lineage: the Olallieberry – larger and more productive, though less cold-hardy.
But from these versatile, tasty hybrids, Waldo finally struck gold, with the 1956 birth of the berry that would come to be called the Marion Blackberry, or Marionberry.
Marionberry…the DC mayor from the 80’s?
Nah, bruh. The berry is named after the Oregon’s Marion county – home to state capital, Salem – and the area in which it was first extensively tested.
It has been prized as the “Cabernet of Blackberries” for its multi-layered, bold, earthy flavor. A staple of pies, ice creams, jams and jellies due to their softness, the Marionberry is now the most widely planted blackberry in the world. Oregon wins again.
Sixty years since its big hit? Sounds like the program’s best days are behind it.
Not at all. Despite a nearly unchallenged 50-year reign as Primocane King, the Marionberry is still considered too soft, cold-susceptible, and thorny. Two cultivars developed in the past twenty years, the Black Diamond and Columbia Star, have the edge as thornless, machine-harvestable, straight thugs in low temps. Most critically, though, they rival the Marion in flavor – the latter so much so that experts believe it could supplant Marion as the globe’s best-selling.
Yet all I can find in the store is Driscoll’s because…
A) Marionberries are too soft to ship fresh (or even sell locally, sometimes) but more importantly, B) because processed/frozen berries are where the big money is. 75% of the fresh blackberries consumed in the U.S. come from Mexico.
Frozen and processed berries have also been part of Oregon’s brand from the jump – the state was an early entrant into the field on account of being so sparse; the majority of produce had to be frozen or processed in order to successfully traverse the state.
Cool – literally! So what’s the future of the program?
You’d be shocked by how many new cultivars are produced each year, but in the end, the product is only as good as its uptake. For that reason, year-in year-out consistency has become a key characteristic of focus for the program’s new cultivars. Planters want to know that anything new they commit to is predictable, for better or worse, so they can plan ahead.
Desired trait outcomes in the post-Marion years have changed in other ways, too, beyond the obvious “taste as good as Marion.” They have also evolved to include qualities consistent with emerging environmental needs, such as earlier harvest times to avoid a destructive type of fruit fly, and heat tolerance in light of increasing global temperatures and variability. Temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit can cause softness and “sunburn” for the berries. Fortunately, the success of the Columbia Star and Black Diamond bode well for future development!
Speaking of Columbia Star and Black Diamond…what you’ve all been wondering: who gets to name the new berries?
That’s square in the purview of the USDA and our friend, Dr. Finn, who honestly bemoans the process. Originally they’d approached it from a marketability standpoint, taking their cue from cosmetics like lipsticks. But, Finn reasoned, Oregon planters weren’t trying to request blackberries called “Passion.” So fortunately, for the trailing varietals at least, they’ve adopted the naming convention of “Columbia” (after the river bordering Oregon and Washington state) + a quality indicator. Columbia Star is one example; Columbia Giant another. We at Rum & Biscuits would like to humbly submit “Columbia Ryan Gosling,” for consideration. But it’s gotta be a good one!
And so for the foreseeable future, Oregon looks set to be what it has been all along: dominant in blackberries, and thus able to give its people at least one point of pride and self-definition still legal in all fifty states. Legal and, thanks to Oregon’s processing proficiency, perennial, even as the Driscoll’s start disappearing from our supermarket shelves around this time of year.
Being from, well, the source of the berries, I never had to dabble much in the frozen, but let me tell you I finally dipped below zero in order to make a cocktail syrup from a bag of frozen Marions and let me tell you I don’t think I’m going back.
Curious where the cocktail syrup ended up? I’ll be honest, it was quite the unusual combination and damn delicious, if I may say so. An exciting evolution of how the Oregon staple can be adapted across cultures and elevate things to a whole other level. Keep an eye out for it in an upcoming post – it’s one sure to get you inspired, and responsibly turnt!