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The History of Western Berries

Summertime is the best time to savor many types of berries.

strawberries, image
Photo caption
California is one of the leading producers of strawberries.


I could hardly wait for dessert. I'd never heard of bumbleberry pie, but just saying it made my mouth water. Visions of bumbleberries danced in my head, plump and bumpy, a destination berry for bumblebees. The pie, served to me at Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff, spilled over with lush fruit the color of merlot. Its intriguing jumble of textures and flavors was at once playful and seductive.

Berries inspire chefs to inventive combinations such as semifreddo tortes, grappa-laced compotes, crisps with figs or rhubarb. But this humble bumbleberry pie was a revelation.

The waiter looked confused by the ferocity of my request for everything he knew about bumbleberries.

"Um, it's a name we use," he said. "You see . . . there's no such thing as bumbleberries. The chef makes the pie with berries that are in season and calls it bumbleberry. It's just a name."

I didn't believe a word. This was obviously a ploy to conceal the chef's trade secrets. Fine. I'd find them all by myself. A little research into berry varieties and I'd have my bumbleberries and eat them, too. But where to begin?

Many types of berries flourished under the stewardship of Native Americans, particularly in the moderate climates and long growing seasons of California and the Pacific Northwest.

Strawberries seemed a good starting place for my purposes. The modern strawberry, I discovered, began with two New World varieties. The first was the delicate and flavorful scarlet woodland strawberry, found in Virginia. Then, in the early 18th century, a French explorer named Frezier came across the wild beach strawberry on the west coast of South America. This firm-fleshed variety, sometimes as big as a hen's egg, tasted distinctly of pineapple. Crossing these two varieties produced a less perishable, sweet, plum-red berry that gained immediate popularity all over the world. By the 1850s, America was caught up in "strawberry fever," with people throwing strawberry parties, horticultural societies sponsoring strawberry exhibits, and towns holding strawberry festivals. Recipes began to appear for everything from Sister Abigail's Strawberry Flummery and Southern Strawberry Nonsense to strawberry soup, frappé, wine, and even a strawberry concoction to bathe in. Today, California grows most of the nation's crop, including hundreds of varieties—quinault, Fresno, Ozark beauty, sequoia. But not a word about bumbleberry.

On to blueberries, another American native that caught the attention of the first colonists, who bought them by the bushel from Native Americans. From them, the colonists also learned to sun dry the berries, using them as a substitute for the currants and raisins they had left behind. There are three main types—highbush, lowbush (or wild), and rabbiteye. First cultivated in the 1920s by Dr. F.V. Coville, highbush produce sweet, plump berries with a silvery bloom. Up to four times larger than wild blueberries, they offer a tempting balance of sweet, tart, and acid. Low-bush berries are small, with flavors ranging from deliciously tart to sugar-sweet, much like rabbiteyes, which grow well in warm regions of the South.

Here in the West, the varieties most likely to show up in farmers' markets and produce departments are the tart Coville (named in honor of the doctor), as well as Berkeley, spartan, Stanley, and the almost unbeatable bluecrop. Blueberries are from a big family, with cousins and look-alikes named whortleberry, bilberry, hurtleberry, saskatoon, huckleberry, and even cranberry. Everything but my bumbleberry.

Surely in the realm of blackberries, with more than 2,000 varieties, I'd find the elusive bumbleberry. Blackberries come in so many forms, colors, and shapes: thorned, thornless, trailing; deep purple, gold, or red; elongated or squat. And they assume countless nicknames and aliases, from the petite dewberry and the large, red youngberry to the glossy, black darrowberry. Logan-berries, a robust blackberry-raspberry cross with a rich and tangy taste, emerged more than a hundred years ago from the Santa Cruz berry gardens of horticulturalist James H. Logan. Big, beautiful olallieberries, a nippy, sweet-tasting favorite for midsummer pies, were developed in Corvallis, Ore., a cross between young and logan. Medium to large marionberries are deeply colored with a fruity fragrance and mild acidity. The boysenberry is a hybrid of blackberries and loganberries named for botanist Rudolph Boysen, who developed this large, juicy, deep-purple fruit with the red glow. Its raspberry flavor is especially delicious when the fruit is slightly cooked.

I had to admit that after 14,000 ways of looking at a blackberry, including hefty new cultivars like Black Butte and Siskiyou, I found no evidence of my bumbleberry. Undeterred, I continued my quest among raspberries, a flirty fruit with colors for every mood: red, yellow, purple, black. High in potassium and vitamin A, raspberries were once considered a medicinal plant with the power to heal wounds and keep false teeth in place. They have a particularly long season in California and the Pacific North-west, where varieties like heritage and Willamette, the largest raspberry, flourish into November. California, Washington, and Oregon produce 90 percent of the nation's red raspberry supply. Black raspberries, or blackcaps, are sometimes small and seedy but excellent in baked dishes that tease out rich nuances.

Cumberland and munger varieties have larger, plumper fruit, while thimbleberries, an acidic black raspberry lavish in flavor, are a Pacific Northwest favorite first enjoyed by Native Americans. Although golden raspberries derive from the same species as the red, they are juicier and sweeter and add a Midas touch to berry pies and tarts. Fallgold and amber are the two varieties most commonly available.

After reading about and taste testing many of the aforementioned, I haven't yet found my bumbleberries. Happily, in the prolific world of berries there's still much to explore. There are large, purple tayberries with their enchanting aroma; gorgeous, burgundy-red nectarberries that taste like wine; the mysteriously almond-scented serviceberry. And let's not forget the brightly colored wineberry, the tart barberry that stars in Oregon's state emblem. There are also lingonberries, cloudberries, elderberries, and even bearberries, described as "useful in case of famine," although popular just about anytime with bears. I suspect my bumbleberry is related to the mulberry. Edward Bunyard's description of that fruit, in his lyrical Anatomy of Dessert, reminded me of my berry experience:

"It is said that to this fruit we owe the invention of forks and all that has meant to the art of the table."

Bumbleberry Black Bottom Pie

Adapted from The California-American Cookbook by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate

2 tablespoons orange juice

4 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

pinch salt

1 cup each blueberries, blackberries, raspberries (or any combination desired)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 cup heavy cream whipped with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons orange or berry liqueur (optional)

shaved chocolate (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt chocolate with orange juice in a small heavy saucepan or double boiler over low heat. Stir until smooth and let cool. Butter a 10-inch pie plate.

Beat yolks with sugar in a bowl until very thick and pale in color. Add cinnamon and melted chocolate, beating slowly until blended. Beat whites with salt until stiff. Add whites one-third at a time to mixture, folding in gently with a spatula. Pour mixture into the pie plate, level with spatula, and bake for about 25 minutes. Allow to cool. As crust cools, it will sink in the center, forming a shell.

In large bowl, toss berries with sugar. Fill cooled pie shell with berry mixture. Spread with whipped cream and sprinkle with shaved chocolate

Very Berry Festivals

Blackberry Festival, August 11-12, Lower Lake, Anderson Marsh State Historical Park. Hikes, wagon rides, bluegrass, fiddle contest, milkshakes, and more. (800) 525-3743.

Raspberry Days, August 2-4, Bear Lake, Garden City Park. (800) 448-2327,

Photography courtesy of Ken Hammond/USDA ARS/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in July 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.