The cultivation of raspberries is, compared to that of other fruits, a relatively recent endeavor. Rubus idaeus, “the bramble bush of Ida,” purportedly grew on the slopes of Mount Ida and was enjoyed by the residents of the city of Troy. Ida, the nursemaid to the infant Zeus, pricked her finger while picking the originally snow-white berries, staining them red from that time forth. But it was not until the last four or five hundred years, writes D.L. Jennings in his Raspberries and Blackberries, that raspberries have been domesticated.
Today, nearly 60 percent of U.S. red raspberries are produced in Washington. Almost all of the state’s raspberries, which totaled 70 million pounds last year, are grown within a few miles of Lynden, in the northwest corner of the state, just south of the Canadian border.
And most of those approximately 9,500 acres of raspberries are one variety, the Meeker, which was released in 1967 by WSU’s first raspberry breeder, Chester Schwartze.
Schwartze started breeding raspberries at Washington State College’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center in 1932. Area raspberry growers had approached the station four years earlier requesting help in developing a variety that had better winter hardiness than the Cuthbert variety they were currently growing,
Meeker is obviously a fine variety, a real workhorse. It offers great fruit quality and yield, says current raspberry breeder Patrick Moore. Its only problem is it is susceptible to raspberry bushy dwarf virus. The virus, which is transmitted on pollen, causes partial sterility and degrades the berry. Raspberries are composed of small sections called drupelets. Instead of a normal hundred or so drupelets, says Moore, a berry afflicted by the virus will have far fewer, causing it to crumble when harvested.
This means the fruit cannot be sold as “individual quick frozen,” the highest grade of processed berries.
This results in a huge financial hit, says Moore. To offset its effect, fields must be replanted every six years instead of a normal 10 to 12, an enormously expensive procedure.
It is no wonder then that a top priority in Moore’s breeding is virus resistance.
“Flavor, color, firmness, yield, machine harvestability, root rot tolerance, virus resistance,” says Moore, listing off the traits he seeks in a new variety, not necessarily in that order.
Ninety-nine percent of Washington’s raspberries are harvested by machine for processing, so the berries of a commercial variety must be firm enough to stay intact through harvest.
Plant breeding is a matter of compromise and tradeoffs. A breeder pursues as many of the desired traits as he or she can get, says Moore.
WSU has released 12 raspberry varieties over the years. Besides Moore and Schwartze, Bruce Barritt was the raspberry breeder from 1970 to 1980 and Tom Sjulin from 1981 to 1987. Moore has released six raspberry varieties since he started in 1987. He is also responsible for breeding strawberries and has released three varieties, out of a total of 13 developed by WSU breeders.
Breeding a new variety is clearly a long process, generally taking around 14 years. It entails not only the reward of a successful new variety, but also a share of frustration.
When I ask Moore if he has a favorite for taste, his answer is immediate.
“Cascade Dawn,” a variety that he released in 2005.
Unfortunately, the berry does not come off the cane easily, making it hard to harvest. As a result, it is not being propagated.
Tulameen, from British Columbia, has good flavor, says Moore, but is pretty susceptible to root rot.
“One of my technicians prefers Meeker,” he says.
The freshest berries, and thus tastiest, of course, come from one’s own patch.
The first thing to look for in planning a raspberry patch is the raspberry variety, says Moore. Good choices for the backyard grower are Meeker, Cowichan, Chilliwack, and Willamette, all of which are adapted to a Northwest climate. Others include fall-bearing Summit, Prelude, Jaclyn, and Josephine and summer-bearing Cascade Delight.
Perhaps the ultimate in raspberry flavor comes in a bottle. Winemaker Nicolas Quillé makes an intense framboise dessert wine at Pacific Rim’s winery in the Tri-Cities from raspberries grown by Mike ’66 and Jeanne ’67 Youngquist in Mount Vernon.
Quillé uses a hybrid clone selected for its rich flavor and color. Grown on 13 acres of the Youngquist farm, the “Morrison” clone grows nowhere else. Quillé first ferments the raspberries just a bit, then soaks them in high-proof grape alcohol for 30 to 35 days. The final product is 16.5 percent alcohol and defines “raspberry.”
On the web
Information about raspberries (WSU Small Farms office)