On a sunny day in early February, I revisited Cannard Farm in Glen Ellen, Calif., and was given a tour by its owner, Bob Cannard. I pay attention to what Bob grows because for decades he has supplied veggies to a most discriminating customer — Alice Waters’s famous restaurant Chez Panisse. On this trip, I got an unexpected tutorial about boysenberries, a special California treat that can be grown in the East.
The origin of the boysenberry is a bit mysterious, but it was made famous by Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park in 1934. A cross between a blackberry and a raspberry, it leans heavily to the blackberry side in its growth habit (trailing), its color (deepest purple when ripe) and its flavor (bold but sweet). Cannard told me his plants were 20 years old and “the original cross,” not strains developed for commercial packing and shipping. With the original hybrid, “the berries are delicious, very soft, juicy and fragile. You have to eat them right away,” he said. I’d never tasted fresh-picked boysenberries, but they sounded like a wonderful thing to have in one’s yard.
An intern, Claire Wirick, was busy with the plants’ annual pruning and training. Like many bramble crops, boysenberries are perennial plants that send up canes in year one that bear fruit in year two. These second-year canes then die back. The ground was littered with dead canes that Claire and her co-worker had cut down at soil level.
Last summer’s canes, scheduled to bloom come spring, were being trained on two horizontal wires, one above the other, held up by sturdy posts about 10 feet apart. Wearing thick gloves, Claire was bundling the thorny canes together with a technique that was new to me. She twisted them like a rope around the top wire, sometimes dipping them down under the bottom wire and back up again. “It depends on how much space you have on the wire and how strong the canes are,” she explained. “Some are too weak to go down and back. You also want to leave as much air as possible between them.” When she came to a post, she wound canes around that as well. “The berries are easier to pick when they’re higher up.”
It might take a little practice, but these plants were so well woven that they needed no ties to keep them in place. I asked Claire whether she cuts off the tips. “No, only when propagating,” she said. “If they were trailing along the ground, those tips would root, so we snip them and start new plants with them in the greenhouse.”
Boysenberries, like many blackberries, are less hardy than raspberries. Hardiness Zone 7 is usually their limit, though a variety called Lavaca, recommended by Virginia Cooperative Extension, is said to be more cold tolerant and resistant to disease. Its fruits are more firm, a bit less delicate. Virginia Berry Farm markets it wholesale to nurseries, so you might find plants locally.
There are also thornless boysenberries, but I’d look for varieties that haven’t been messed with too much. Burnt Ridge Nursery, a mail order source in Onalaska, Wash., has one it says is the original boysenberry. If it produces berries with the delectable flavor that caused all the fuss in 1934, it’s well worth a try, thorns and all.
Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Lawn mowers that need servicing and new blades should be taken to a repair shop now to avoid the early spring rush and to have the machines ready when the grass begins to grow in late March.
— Adrian Higgins