Big drama in the plant of the week this week. Scandal, heartbreak, a reputation in ruins, all happened with this two foot high plant.
To start with, what’s in a name?
Luther Burbank (1949-1926) was a great botanist in his time. He was said to have developed 800-1000 new species of plants. Even a fraction of that total would be amazing. Unfortunately the man was not without his naysayers. I believe there is a certain amount of professional jealousy that may have been involved with some of the more vicious attacks on his character.
Taken at face value, whether he developed 1000 new species or slightly less than that is really irrelevant, in my not so scientific opinion. He was a great botanist and we are reaping the benefits of his discoveries even today when we eat a plate of french fries made with Burbank potatoes, or we plant a lovely spray of gorgeous Burbank daisies, which are Shasta daisies to you and me.
Now as to the Wonderberries…
The story goes that Burbank used Solanum guinense from South Africa and Solanum villosum from Europe, bred them together and poof the Wonderberry was born. While he held the rights, there wasn’t much of a fuss. People enjoyed growing them as a species of Garden Huckleberry and readily bought the seeds so they would enjoy bumper crops for pies and preserves.
The controversy happened when he sold the “rights” to the seeds to a company that changed the name to Sunberry and described them as an edible black nightshade plant.
You can eat them raw, but they really don’t shine this way. They are best used in pies and jams. This is where they really stand out and are most excellent.
A little sugar, a little lemon juice and zest, a quick tart shell and you have the perfect summer supper showstopping dessert. Ooh or Wonderberry jam on whole wheat toast, yummy!
You can even whip up a wonderberry barbeque sauce in two shakes that will make your grandma cry (because of deliciousness not because of anything else, and of course our goal in life should never to be to make our elders cry, but I think you get what I’m saying here…the sauce is good.)
In the garden, growing Wonderberries are a breeze. I have one bed that is all Wonderberries and Ground Cherries. I do this so I can make pies, tarts, jams and smoothies all summer. I can what I can and bake the rest. I’ll eventually add raspberry and blackberry canes to the property, but I wanted something that wasn’t a long term commitment for this year, until the Parsnips job situation is a bit more stable. While I’m happy to stay in our little house by the woods with all this land to garden on, I realize that things change without much notice, so the long term plants will wait a bit.
I do grow blueberries in ten gallon containers. What don’t get eaten on the way in the house, get added to the Wonderberries or Ground Cherries for a delicious mixed berry jam or pie.
Where to get your seed? Baker Creek sells them as Wonderberry in the fruit and berry section of the catalog. Seed Savers sells them as Sunberry (a.k.a. Wonderberry). Tradewinds Fruit carries them, although I have not ordered from them, so I don’t know their company policies or practices. Plant World Seeds has them and then finally, Southern Exposure carries them as well with the name Wonderberry (a.k.a. Sunberry)
The plants are easy to care for, you pretty much treat them as you would a cherry tomato. You can stake them or trellis them if you want, but they don’t get very big at all so I just let mine to their thing. I stake the ground cherries so they don’t break their vines with fruit weight. The Wonderberries are tiny so they don’t have this problem. I started mine indoors in February and planted them in their home bed about the first of April. They are thriving and I should be looking at a first harvest about the first or second week of June, if not a little before that. With the warm weather and rain we’ve had, I wouldn’t be surprised if I see some at the end of this month.
I’m giving you a recipe that I have adapted for my Wonderberries. They really can be used just as you would any berry, with the stipulation that you will be cooking them. As I mentioned before, raw fruit is rather bland and not really anything to write home about, but you may love them, so go ahead and try. They are nice to toss in a salad for just a little different flavor, and why not? They are cute.
Here are the recipes I promised. I hope you find at least one of them to enjoy. Please note, I substitute fruit rather freely to incorporate what is in season at the moment. In other words, Wonderberries freely get mixed with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or whatever other berry I have harvested or found at the farmer’s market that week.
Rustic Wonderberry Crostata (Tart)
This is a variation of a Country Living recipe.
Crostata (tart) dough
- 1 1/4 cup(s) (plus 1 tablespoon) All-Purpose Flour
- 1/4 cup(s) (plus 2 tablespoons) Sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon(s) Salt
- 1/2 cup(s) (1 stick) Unsalted Butter, softened
- 2 large Eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 cups Wonderberry (or a mix of berries to your liking)
- 1 tablespoon(s) Fresh Lemon Juice
- 1 tablespoon(s) Turbinado Sugar (I use a little more, and I sometimes use white sugar)
- Make the dough: Combine 1 1/4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Form a well in center of the dry ingredients and place the butter and 1 egg in the well. Using your hands, mix the ingredients into a soft, pliable dough. Form it into a 4-inch disk and place it on lightly floured parchment paper. Lightly dust the dough with flour and roll it into a 10-inch circle. Place dough with parchment on a baking sheet, cover the dough with plastic wrap, and chill for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Make the crostata: In a small bowl, mix remaining flour and sugar and set aside. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and evenly spread the flour and sugar mixture on the dough, leaving a 1-inch-wide border around the edge. Place berries on top of the mixture and sprinkle with lemon juice. Fold the 1-inch border over top of the berries to form a 9-inch crostata.
- Bake the crostata: Lightly brush the top of the crostata dough with remaining beaten egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar, if desired. Bake on the middle rack of the oven — about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and slide crostata with the parchment paper onto a wire rack. Cool for 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Wonderberry Ginger Syrup (More of a heavy syrup, delicious on pancakes and the like) This is for one small jar
Wonderberry Ginger Jam
(makes 1 small mason jar)
1 cup wonderberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
juice of half a lemon
Cook wonderberries, sugar and ginger over a medium-high flame for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, sterilize the mason jar and lid by boiling completely submerged in water for at least 10 minutes. Taste wonderberry mixture and add lemon juice to taste. Remove from heat. Carefully remove jar and lid from boiling water, and fill with the wonderberries immediately. Tightly screw on lid, and place the jar upright in the pot of hot water and adjust water so that the water level almost reaches the lid. Boil for another 10 minutes to process. Remove carefully and let cool completely. Jar can be stored unrefrigerated until opening.
I also make a version of this that is ginger free. I substitute cinnamon and a few cloves for the ginger with excellent results. Just like other canning yummies, you can experiment with different combinations of things with nice results. Be sure to write down what you try so you can duplicate a masterpiece! I’m going to be doing some Wonderberry with Lavender this year. I’ll let you know what comes of it.
Wonderberry Jam Small Batch
makes 1 pint
3 cups smashed wonderberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 inches ginger, sliced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger
Prepare a small canning pot and two half pint jars.
Combine mashed berries, sugar and sliced ginger in a bowl or measuring cup. Let sit for at least an hour and up to 24 hours to give the ginger time to infuse its flavor into the fruit. If you’re going for a longer maceration time, pop the fruit into the fridge.
When you’re ready to make the jam, pour the fruit into a medium pot. Bring to a boil and add the lemon zest and juice. Cook for 10-20 minutes (time depends on moisture level in fruit, humidity, power of stove, etc.) until jam approaches 220 degrees and appears to pass the plate test.
When jam is finished cooking, remove pot from heat and stir in the candied ginger. Pour into prepared jars. Wipe rims, apply lids and rings and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes.
Check seals when cool and store unopened jars in a cool, dark place.