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Edible Gardens: Black Raspberries, America’s Lost Fruit

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Edible Gardens: Black Raspberries, America’s Lost Fruit

August 4, 2018

My first encounter with black raspberries—native to eastern North America—was at farmers’ market in Sante Fe one summer, years ago. I was stopped in my tracks by blue boxes filled with unfamiliar and dark powdery berries, like miniature red raspberries. I exclaimed brightly to the farmer who sat hunched and scowling behind his crop. Purple storm clouds and the smell of ozone pressed down on us. In answer to my peppered questions, he explained abruptly that a hail storm had wiped out his entire crop and these black raspberries were all he had been able to salvage from his fields before the storm hit. It had destroyed his main income of the year. So I bought more than I needed…or did I? The flavor of the berries was a revelation—dark, like black mulberries.

Photography by Marie Viljoen, except where noted.

Ten years passed before I saw the plant for sale in Brooklyn at a nursery that has now been shuttered. It was late winter and Rubus occidentalis ‘Jewel’ sat in its plastic pot, looking scrawny and cold. I pounced and carried it home.
Above: Ten years passed before I saw the plant for sale in Brooklyn at a nursery that has now been shuttered. It was late winter and Rubus occidentalis ‘Jewel’ sat in its plastic pot, looking scrawny and cold. I pounced and carried it home.
Photograph by Vincent Mounier.
Above: Photograph by Vincent Mounier.

Above: I planted it in a 16-inch pot in full sun on my scrappy roof farm with a view of New York Harbor. Every evening we would join it for cocktails and watch the sun go down. That was in 2011. I have been growing black raspberries ever since, all offspring of this parent plant. This American fruit remains rare at market.

To reduce the risk of infection, it is advisable not to accept plants from other gardeners. Buy certified, disease-free stock from a reputable nursery. Also, control aphid populations as these sap-sucking insects transmit a virus from plant to plant. In my no-spray garden the ladybugs and lacewings seem to be doing a very good job.
Above: To reduce the risk of infection, it is advisable not to accept plants from other gardeners. Buy certified, disease-free stock from a reputable nursery. Also, control aphid populations as these sap-sucking insects transmit a virus from plant to plant. In my no-spray garden the ladybugs and lacewings seem to be doing a very good job.

Black raspberries were first domesticated in the 1830s. Since about the 1920s, commercial production has slowly declined. “Berry growers in Oregon, for example just don’t find them that profitable, and there aren’t really any locally adapted varieties with good disease resistance and other traits for commercial productions,” writes Leon van Eck, a friend who is a molecular biologist in the department of plant pathology at the University of Minnesota. Leon studies the genomes of plants in the rose family (which includes apples, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries) to identify the genes these plants have evolved to defend themselves against pests and diseases. This is especially relevant when discussing my favorite berry because black raspberries are susceptible to a host of viruses. I have been lucky, or perhaps ‘Jewel’ is as disease resistant as advertised.

The good news about hard to find black raspberries is that their canes will take root where they touch ground. Once the new plant sends up its own leaves and small canes, you can sever it from the parent cane, dig up the new plant and relocate it. If you have many plants and a large growing area, this could lead to invasiveness. But with vigilance they are easy to manage. You just need to pay attention.
Above: The good news about hard to find black raspberries is that their canes will take root where they touch ground. Once the new plant sends up its own leaves and small canes, you can sever it from the parent cane, dig up the new plant and relocate it. If you have many plants and a large growing area, this could lead to invasiveness. But with vigilance they are easy to manage. You just need to pay attention.
Black raspberries are relatively tolerant of shade, making them a useful fruit for gardens or terraces with fluctuating sun. I have grown them in as little as four hours of direct sun at the height of summer (seen here on our Harlem terrace).
Above: Black raspberries are relatively tolerant of shade, making them a useful fruit for gardens or terraces with fluctuating sun. I have grown them in as little as four hours of direct sun at the height of summer (seen here on our Harlem terrace).
Harvesting black raspberries is fun because they ripen over a period of days, giving you a nice handful every time. My two plants produced three pounds this summer.
Above: Harvesting black raspberries is fun because they ripen over a period of days, giving you a nice handful every time. My two plants produced three pounds this summer.
This year’s crop on June 16, pale and unripe.
Above: This year’s crop on June 16, pale and unripe.
On June 17, lipstick red and looking promising.
Above: On June 17, lipstick red and looking promising.
June 19, and we’re off!
Above: June 19, and we’re off!
It is important to prune black raspberries. They bear fruit on second-year canes. After they have fruited in midsummer, those canes will turn a dark purple or black. Prune the old, dark canes down to the ground after you have harvested all their fruit.
Above: It is important to prune black raspberries. They bear fruit on second-year canes. After they have fruited in midsummer, those canes will turn a dark purple or black. Prune the old, dark canes down to the ground after you have harvested all their fruit.
New, fast-growing green canes with a powdery coating will appear as fruit ripens. You can trim back these vigorous new green canes after they reach the height you desire. This encourages lateral growth, where fruit will set the following year. Prune a third time in very early spring to cut out any weak, spindly canes.
Above: New, fast-growing green canes with a powdery coating will appear as fruit ripens. You can trim back these vigorous new green canes after they reach the height you desire. This encourages lateral growth, where fruit will set the following year. Prune a third time in very early spring to cut out any weak, spindly canes.

Raspberries prefer acidic soil (my in-ground pH is 5.4) and in a pot you can add fresh coffee grounds as well as fertilize with Espoma Holly-Tone ($15.87 for a 16-pound bag at Amazon), for acid-loving plants.

Finally, how to eat? They are best right out of the bowl with a sprinkle of sugar and a slick of pouring cream. I also love to include them in berry jams.
Above: Finally, how to eat? They are best right out of the bowl with a sprinkle of sugar and a slick of pouring cream. I also love to include them in berry jams.
The dark, complex flavor of black raspberries is delicious with chocolate. I included them recently in a riff on a Black Forest cake, along with indigenous serviceberries (also known as saskatoon).
Above: The dark, complex flavor of black raspberries is delicious with chocolate. I included them recently in a riff on a Black Forest cake, along with indigenous serviceberries (also known as saskatoon).

Food for thought from Leon the biologist: “So many black raspberry cultivars have been lost in the last century. If you see ‘New Logan’, ‘Plum Farmer’, or ‘Shuttleworth’ anywhere, you should definitely save some seed!”

So keep your eyes open. You could be part of the new wave of black raspberry growers.

N.B.: See more growing tips in Raspberries: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Edibles 101 and more garden-to-table posts about our favorite summer fruits:

Finally, learn how to successfully design and create an edible garden with our Hardscaping 101: Edible Gardens guide.

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