This year I had another flirtation with that fruit known as Garden Huckleberries or Wonderberries. These plants produce small white flowers and black berries. They crop up in my gardens now and then because they are productive, easy to grow and are annuals and there are not many annual fruits.
If you have never heard of either plant there is a good reason but I will get to that in a minute. First of all, what are they?
This is an obvious question but the answer is far from simple – in fact it is more complicated than trying to explain why all courgettes are squashes but not all squashes are courgettes.
Working them out
The Garden Huckleberry is botanically Solanum melanocerasum (meaning Black cherry) or Solanum nigrum var. guineense. To make it more confusing it is sometimes called S. scabrum too. The plants produce clusters of five to eight small, white, yellow-beaked flowers that lead to relatively large, black berries. These are hard and shiny but lose some of their gloss when ripe. Plants produce good crops.
The Wonderberry is (probably) S. retroflexum or, perhaps more usefully, S x burbankii. The Wonderberry is one of the many plants bred by that great American garden pioneer, Luther Burbank and is said to be a hybrid of S. villosum and S. nigrum var. guineense. It is said that Luther Burbank raised this hybrid in 1909 and called it the Sunberry but he sold the seed and rights to one of his customers John Lewis Childs who renamed it Wonderberry. Perhaps because of the less than modest name, public opinion quickly turned against the Wonderberry and it actually did Burbank’s reputation harm. This is more than unfair because he was a remarkable pioneer and raised many fruit varieties including the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum, many flowers and, most importantly, the ‘Russet Burbank’ potato which is still one of the world’s most popular potatoes and is MacDonald’s potato of choice for chips.
Although similar to Garden Huckleberries, the fruits are much smaller and are produced in slightly larger clusters. They, too, start green but turn black well before they are fully ripe. But when ripe they are soft and are just about edible and sweet. Plants are very productive.
To grow them, sow the seeds in March in gentle heat indoors. Transplant the seedlings at the cotyledon stage, into pots or cell trays. Plant them out in the garden, in a sunny spot, in late May (in the NH) when danger of frost is passed. Water if necessary but otherwise just let them grow and crop. Most sites say they crop 75 days after planting. That’s all you have to do.
In theory, these are amazing plants that are simple to grow and that produce heavy crops in a few months. So why don’t your grow them?
1 They are confusing
I only ordered one pack of seed. Both plants look exactly the same when young and it wasn’t till they fruited that I knew I had both. It is thought that the original Burbank Sunberry (later Wonderberry) was contaminated with Solanum nigrum (black nighshade) and it is likely that all these species, varieties and hybrids interbeed.
2 They are nightshades
The plants look almost exactly like black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and anything with the name nightshade is treated with suspicion. The truly deadly deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is distantly related (both are in Solanaceae) but looks nothing like these plants. We have an instinctive fear of these plants – just look at how Europeans would not eat tomatoes when they were first brought from Central America! Because these crops are almost indistinguishable from the weed Black nightshade, no wonder people don’t fancy eating them.
3 They take a long time to ripen
You can tell a strawberry is ripe when it changes colour but these two have berries that turn black but that is not a sign they are ready to eat. Both tend to lose their intense gloss when ripe and Wonderberries are soft when ripe but Garden Huckleberries are still pretty hard. Now, at the end of October, the berries are just about ripe. It is said that they can be poisonous when not ripe. I can’t say if this is true but I have eaten them unripe, to test if they are ripe, and lived to tell the tale, but I have only eaten one or two at a time. It is best to eat them cooked.
4 They don’t taste of much
The berries are reasonably sweet when ripe but they are pippy and they are best eaten cooked. The best way to use them is to stew them with added sugar and I would suggest it is best to add them to apples and stew them together. The berries, when cooked, especially Garden Huckleberries, make the apple pulp turn a vibrant purple that is amazing when you add cream or custard – kids should love it although you may not when you have to try to get the stains out of their T shirt!
5 They are fiddly to pick
The berries need to be picked without the calyx or you have another job in the kitchen before you cook them. It is possible to pick the berries off and leave the calyx and stem behind but you need to hold the berries and pull them off sideways. It is a knack but not impossible. But you will have purple fingers. Wonderberries are softer and squishier when ripe.
In conclusion, these are interesting plants that I can’t help feel have huge potential but they either need serious marketing or some refinement to make them acceptable to the general public or gardener.