Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vials of Contempt - The Wonderberry Story

This is a fun story of trash talk across the Atlantic, plant hybridization, and the magic of advertising.  My wanderings in the internet took me from California of the early 1900s to Siberia today.  The journey left me wanting to try a jar of sunberry jam! 

The article below was printed in the San Francisco Call in the spring of 1909. 
 (Another article in it trashed John Muir...)

However, Burbank got flak from this side of the pond as well.  

The Literary Digest, Volume 39 - July 31,1909

What Is the Wonderberry?
Some of the horticultural papers are exercised over the identity and properties of a plant called the wonderberry or sunberry , advertised as a recent production of Luther Burbank and described as an edible combination of two wild berry plants of the nightshade family, both of which yield poisonous fruit.  The catalog of one dealer who professes to be the only one to offer this marvel, says of it:  Its influence in an economic sense on the human race will be far reaching, for it is entirely novel and distinct and valuable article of food which anyone may grow in abundance anywhere at practically at no cost; in short, get the maximum results from a minimum output in labor or expense.  Luther Burbank’s apparently wild estimates of its value have been more than confirmed by our large crops of the past summer, and by the fruiting specimens in our greenhouses this winter.”

Mr. Burbank is quoted in The Rural New Yorker (New York, July 10) to which we are also indebted for the extract given above, as making the following statement concerning the parentage of the new plant:
“ This absolutely new species of berry plant is of great scientific interest, having been produced by the combination of two very distinct wild species, Solarium guineense of West Africa and Solanum villosum of the West Coast of America. Neither of these wild species bears edible berries, but this new species bears the most delicious, wholesome. and healthful berries in the utmost profusion, and always comes as exactly true from seed as any species produced by nature.”

After examining the seeds of the plant, and looking up the history of its parents, The Gardeners' Chronicle, an English publication, concluded that the wonderberry was practically the same thing as the black nightshade, which in England is a poisonous plant. To a correspondent who wrote direct to Luther Burbank about this Mr. Burbank replied, making an offer of $10,000 to any one who can prove that the wonderberry is either the black nightshade or is identical with any previously known berry. The editor of The Rural New Yorker as stated in that paper, then purchased  wonderberry seeds and grew, under glass, the plant represented in the accompanying picture. This plant, the editor asserts, has been declared by expert botanists to possess all the characteristics of the black nightshade. Communication with Mr. Burbank elicited a letter, parts of which are as follows:

“Having no personal or financial interest in the sunberry, or ‘wonderberry,’ as it has been rechristened by its purchaser and introducer. I would refer you to my own statement of the origin of the sunberry. As to its absolutely unique character you perhaps can be further informed by those who know it a little better than you do . . . . . . .

" Perhaps, also, you may obtain some further information,:\vhicli you evidently need, from some of those who have seen the plants growing on a large scale during the past three years, and who have eaten the fruit fresh. and canned or in sauces, pies, and in all other ways in which the Vaccinium pennsylvanicum is used; but the verdict of the people is the one which stands. That verdict is final, and the editor of The Rural New Yorker will be obliged to accept it. Fortunately, the sunberry, like corn and cucumbers, can be tested in a single season, while the value of fruit-trees can be obtained only by long and extensive trials.”

$10,000, in the possession of which, apparently, the question of edibility is not involved, but only that of identity with the black nightshade or some other existing berry. On this point the editor proceeds to give botanical testimony. Dr. N. L. Britton, of the New York Botanical Garden, says of Mr. Burbank’s production:

“Of course, it is a Solanum, of the aflinity of Solanum nigrum, the black nightshade or garden nightshade, which runs into a very great number of races in nature, a good many of which have been regarded as species by different botanical authors. Solanum vilIosum is one of the best marked of these races, and may, perhaps, be better regarded as a species than as a race or variety."

Dr. Charles F. Wheeler, of the United States Department of Agriculture, is quoted as writing, on the same subject:
“ In regard to the question of the identity of the so-called wonderberry, said to have been produced or originated by Mr. Burbank . . . I can say that I have carefully examined the plants growing here and can not separate them from the plant named by Linnaeus Solanum nigrum [black nightshade]."
Prof. L. C. Corbett, of the Government Testing Gardens at Arlingtop, gives it as his opinion that the wonderberry is identical with a plant that has been known and sold for years as the “garden huckleberry "; and E. C. Matthews, who has grown the new Burbank berry in Mexico, states his belief that it is simply the black nightshade and nothing else. Entirely by the way, The Rural New Yorker mentions that the berries grown on its own specimen, shown in the illustration, “have been sampled by a dozen people," and that “only two would swallow after tasting,” while “no one wanted a second dose." The editor maintains that this showing puts him far ahead in the running for Mr. Burbank’s $10,000.

 But when doctors disagree, who shall decide?  There seems to be strong evidence on both sides.  As it is easy to grow the “wonder berry” and to decide whether its fruit is or is not good to eat, that part of the problem ought to be settled in a season or two.  Meanwhile, the exploiter of the “wonder” ought to reap a golden harvest.

This company, Dust Bowl Seed, caught my eye for their good photography.  The berries are tiny, green pea size. 

Here is another source  with a nice photo that has testimonials!  I love testimonial advertising :-)
I planted these just for fun. They have a strange but good taste. I wasn't sure what to do with them and looked up Wonderberry Jam. It is the best jam I have ever made. So simple and very unique.
From what I have been reading the berries should be considered only for cooked recipes.  Their flavor seems to blossom in the cooking and with the addition of a sweetener and a little acid.  They are not a blueberry substitute as a fresh fruit.  I thought would need a good size garden to support enough plants to be useful but it seems a few plants will do for home use jams.   

 I came across a Blogger site,  The Tasty Vegetable Garden, by a gardener in Siberia,  Victor Syarheenkawhich tells about his experience with the plant...and he has many other interesting posts.

A Seed Savers Forum gives a great review of the fruit from people who grow it.  Check out this positive review if you are interested in the sunberry.

A very interesting pdf on a related berry, Schwartzbeeren,  and traditional German recipes is worth saving.