Sunday, November 20, 2011

Long Live the Marionberry

Republic of Jam

My Mom and Dad were visiting friends or relatives who lived somewhere near Salem, Oregon and the woman we were visiting, perhaps because I was bored and fidgeting, ushered me out of the house and into a field of carefully cultivated blackberries. We walked along the well kept rows and she narrated as we walked.
She told me that these were brand new berries, called Marionberries, just invented and never before seen in the world outside of a few fields nearby.  The berries had been created over at the college and someone from there had asked to rent their field and let them come over and tend the berries in a certain way.  “Why don’t you try them out,” she said, “and let me know what you think.”  She then went back into the house and left me alone with these shiny new blackberries.  I ate a bunch of them and gave her my glowing report. 

George and Thelma Waldo Marriage Photo, 1938
Cathryn Bates Wilkinson
This is one of my more powerful memories about food.  There was something amazing about the idea of an invented fruit, a new food, something ridiculously rare and expensive.  I felt special, a basic premise of deriving pleasure from food.
George F.  Waldo, a U. S.  Department of Agriculture and Agricultural Research Service employee, was the man who had created this remarkable berry.  While he did many wonderful things for USDA-ARS, his particular talent was breeding blackberries and his career choice, in 1932, is one of the reasons that Oregon, in particular the Willamette Valley, is now the center of the blackberry universe. 
Caneberries -- blackberries, raspberries, black raspberries, loganberries –are fruit that grow on thick canes which are then pruned in a way so that the second cane can become the platform for fruit growth the next year.  Some are vertical, some grow in bushes, some have long, unruly canes.  They call the whole lot “brambles.”
After graduating from Oregon State College in 1922 and then getting his MS at Michigan State in 1924, Waldo was put in charge of berry breeding at the USDA-ARS in Glen Dale, Maryland.  He did not like the job.  A creative and very private person, he chaffed at overseeing researchers around the country, doling out money to them, guiding them through the creative process, squinting at their ponderous writing, challenging their berry breeding science and priorities.  Mostly growing up in the Northwest, he wasn’t too happy about the boarding house he lived in with eight other people.
George Darrow
George Darrow was across the country establishing a working a partnership between the USDA and Oregon State College while becoming a leader in strawberry breeding.  Waldo respected the organizational skills of Darrow, though he thought his berries were way too tart.  After a time, the two proposed they trade jobs in a move that would bring Waldo back to where he graduated from college and put Darrow into the national leadership role he sought.  The USDA accepted the arrangement and they switched in 1932 – Waldo’s sweetness in for Darrow’s tart.

At that time, the world of caneberries centered in the eastern part of the country where most of the red raspberry, loganberry and other commercial blackberry cultivars were found. 
The USDA – Oregon State University partnership is today the oldest continuing blackberry breeding program in the world.  It was the perfect place for Mr.  Waldo.  Free of the dulling administrative side of plant invention, Mr.  Waldo now let the creative juices flow.  He built a well-known strawberry, the Brightmore, and a raspberry, the Willamette, that are still players in world markets. 
But his real love was blackberries and he quickly got to work improving the breed.  One of the breeds he liked a lot was the Chehalem, a cross he had made of the Himalayan, introduced by plant genius Luther Burbank and with a mistaken heritage--it’s actually from Germany--and the Santiam, another Waldo creation using the only native blackberry species from the west coast, bred with a loganberry. 
To the Chehalem, he added the Olallie, a cross between a blackberry, a loganberry developed in Santa Cruz, California and the Youngberry, a Loganberry/Dewberry cross hailing from Louisiana. 

The announcement of the Marionberry
He named the result for the county in which he lived and worked, Marion County.  He released this berry to the world in 1957, perhaps three years after I was in that berry patch and eleven years since he selected the first plants from the cross.  The Chehalem was small, firm and held its flavor when processed.  The Olallie was bigger, sweeter and had great yields.  The Marionberry picked up the best of the two – size and yield – and also held its flavor when heated and yes, a mark of Mr. Waldo, it possessed a sweet and sophisticated taste. 

Backyard Gardener
Worldwide, over 50,000 acres of blackberries are in production and result in 155,000 tons of product annually while an estimated 20,000 acres of wild berries are foraged, producing 15,000 wild tons.  Europe and North America together account for nearly 80% of the world market with Serbia the dominant producer in Europe and Oregon the dominant producer in North America.  Blackberries have been a hot prospect for the last twenty years and there is a hefty growth rate in acreages and tons produced all around the world and in Oregon, where the annual crop is worth $40,000,000/year and supports 300 growers and 10 processors in Marion, Clackamas and Washington counties.

To give an idea of the significance of the blackberry to Oregon's fruit economy, its annual revenue is about two thirds the annual revenue of the robust wine grape industry in the state.

This giant of a berry, now the most planted blackberry cultivar in the world, rose out of the hands of a deeply religious man, a Gideon, who refused to eat in a restaurant where alcohol was served, something his assistant, John Martsching despaired of as they drove past restaurant after restaurant in search of a dry one.  Mostly, people referred to him as Mister Waldo.
The Marionberry has some downsides.  It doesn’t provide as much insurance against a cold year as other cultivars.  It has thorns.  Some producers find a thornless blackberry more desirable.  It is a bit softer than other varieties making it slightly harder to survive the stresses of the fast growing fresh markets and it doesn’t hold up as well to machine picking where a machine shakes the bush and the berries experience a fall of a foot or two. Taking all factors together, however, its great taste and overall flexibility make it the top dog still, despite an onslaught of new breeds coming out of Corvallis every year. 
The goals of the blackberry breeding program today are highly specific – a thornless, machine harvestable, cold hardy berry with Marion flavor.  But the new breeds have to also overcome 50 plus years of marketing supporting the Marionberry.  The Blackberry and Raspberry Commission in Oregon has worked the wine angle -- "The Cabernet Sauvignon of berries" -- as well as a football theme that might catch the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association athletic police.  A History of Salem website picks up a marketing assertion that the rise of the University of Oregon to regular BCS contention is due, in fact, to a secret sauce:

"Gifts of Marionberry jams and sauces have been offered to lure potential football players to the University of Oregon."

In 2009, the Oregon State Legislature attempted to name the Marionberry the official berry of the state.  These seemingly no-brainer resolutions are often surprisingly controversial.  For years, the Washington State Legislature struggled with an effort to name a state rock and thought the Beach Agate was just right.  But it ran up against a hornets' nest of opposition from the Petrified Wood interests in the eastern part of the state.  Sure enough, a grower in Washington County, whose berry was the Kutata cultivar -- firmer, hardier, slightly larger -- objected to the designation and, despite support of 90 members of the legislature, the Raspberry Blackberry Commission decided to reconsider.  Of course, it was international news. 

Mr.  Waldo retired in 1968 and spent time distributing Gideon Bibles. He died in 1985 at Marysville, Washington and his colleagues in Corvallis did for him what he never would have done for himself – they named a cultivar after him – the first thornless trailing blackberry, now known as “Waldo.”

Privick Mill Nursery
General Francis Marion, the South Carolina “Swamp Fox” after whom Marion County is named, trails only George Washington among Revolutionary War generals for places named after him.  Today, however, Waldo's berry has clearly eclipsed the general.  A lot of people think that the berry is the reason their county is named Marion and there are even some who believe that Waldo has a nice ring to it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this information about my children's Great Grandpa Waldo. This includes a lot of history that I didn't know about my ex-husband's family so I will share it with my children and my ex-husband as well. Thanks, Kimberly Currier