What is a berry?

I am breaking with the theme of this run of posts, for a day, with one of my own making. No one has ever asked me what a berry is! But, because I like botany and the intricacies of it, I am indulging myself today. I know it is dangerous for someone with a little knowledge to attempt to explain something botanical but I do find it fascinating to know that a cucumber is a berry and a strawberry isn’t. These sort of pedantic arguments do have some relevance such as when I have the pleasure to judge flower shows and knowing that rhubarb is a vegetable and that peppers and aubergines are fruit (a fruit being the result of a fertilised flower). And it harks back to the much-quoted (or possibly mis-quoted in this case) statement that ‘knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit and wisdom is not putting custard on it’.

But back to berries. From a botanical point of view, a berry is a single fruit that results from the fertilisation of an ovary of a flower. It usually contains many seeds.

So a gooseberry (above) is a berry. It is fleshy, has many seeds and is the result of one flower.

Tomatoes and grapes are berries and that is not that surprising. Slightly more odd is that peppers and chillies are also berries.

And it is not that obvious that bananas are also berries.

The confusion with bananas is that the kinds we eat, after centuries of cultivation, are parthenocarpic, meaning that the fruits develop without fertilisation and they do not contain seeds. Banana seeds are large and, if they were found in the bananas we eat, would be a real pain. In the bananas you buy at the store the seeds are undeveloped and just tiny black specks. The same is true of most cucumbers and, indeed, they, along with their relatives, melons, courgettes and squash, are actually berries.

Blueberries are berries too. Even blackcurrants and red currants are berries. But then we come to the berries that are not berries. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are not berries at all.

Strawberries are odd fruits but their structure can be compared to a blackberry. In a blackberry there are many ovaries covering that central white core. The core is the ‘receptacle’ on which the ovaries are attached. These individual ovaries develop into small, fleshy fruit each containing a single seed. To ‘imagine’ a strawberry you take all the flesh off these fruits so there is just a ‘pip’ and you enlarge the receptacle so much that there is lots of gaps between the pips and make the receptacle red and fleshy.

In raspberries the fleshy fruits come away from the core (receptacle) when picked, unlike blackberries and loganberries.

In theory citrus fruits are a kind of berry but they are highly modified and the part that is soft flesh in others becomes the white pith. The part we eat are actually modified, fleshy hairs and the type of fruit is called a hesperidium. The name comes from the Greek Hesperides, the garden to the west, of sunset, where mythical golden apples grew. It is a nice thought that these golden apples were oranges but oranges are Asian. The Hesperides were also the maidens that guarded the trees bearing the golden apples. It is from the word hesperides that we get the word ‘vespers’ too.

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3 Comments on “What is a berry?”

  1. tonytomeo
    December 7, 2022 at 8:11 am #

    I should have paid more attention in Botany classes. I remember though that I did not want to eat pineapples or figs after realizing what they really were.

    • thebikinggardener
      December 7, 2022 at 5:07 pm #

      I must admit that I am still slightly put off figs for that reason but the blackbirds always get to any figs that grow before i do so it is not an issue. Which poses the question of why I have a fig tree but that is far to complicated to deal with! As for pineapples, if I could grow those I would sit out all night to make sure I ate them before the birds!

      • tonytomeo
        December 8, 2022 at 6:13 am #

        Birds may not be interested in them. I do not know. I just dislike them because I can not forget their physiology. They are easier to eat without knowing what they are.

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