A new star may be rising in Oregon’s blackberry fields

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Marion blackberries have dominated for 50 years, but a new thornless variety may eventually replace it.

AURORA, Ore. — The next great Oregon blackberry may be growing in the demonstration plots at Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Station.

Chad Finn, the USDA breeder who developed it, named it Columbia Star — a nod to Oregon and Washington and the river they share, and to its quality.

Time will tell, as it always does with plant breeding. But if it takes off, as Finn believes likely, Columbia Star may surpass the venerable Marion, which since introduction in 1956 has become the most widely planted blackberry cultivar in the world.

In Oregon berry circles, that’s a big deal. Blackberries are a $45 million annual crop in the state, and Oregon leads the nation in blackberry production. Marion was developed by legendary USDA breeder George Waldo, who like Finn was based in Corvallis and collaborated with researchers at OSU. Marion is named for the county where much of the field testing took place, and is valued for its taste, color and aroma.

But fruit yields aren’t overwhelming, the berries are soft and Marion is easily damaged by the cold, Finn said. Worse, it has thorns that can get knocked off during machine harvesting. Growers or processors could be susceptible to lawsuits if a consumer gets stuck while eating pies, preserves or blackberry-flavored ice cream.

“Thornless-ness has been a big driver,” Finn said of his breeding work. “Everybody was screaming for thornless, cold-hardy blackberries.”

Thornless varieties existed, but didn’t approach Marion in quality. Finn came close with Black Diamond, a thornless, machine-harvestable berry, and it has dominated plantings since 2004. Columbia Star, released in 2010, is an improvement, Finn said, with better taste. Both, like Marion, are “trailer” varieties, meaning they produce long vines that can be trained along wires.

Finn estimates 300 to 400 acres were planted to Columbia Star this year, up from about 30 the previous year.

Cornelius, Ore., grower Ken Van Dyke, who has 12 acres planted to Columbia Star this year, said he’s optimistic, based on the results of his “baby crop.”

“The quality’s very good,” he said. “They’re very firm, they machine-pick well, the flavor is very good.”

While a neighbor’s Marions were damaged by cold this past winter, the Columbia Stars came through fine, he said.

Van Dyke said there’s little doubt Columbia Star will replace Marions. “Most processors realize we’re going to have to get away from thorns” due to liability, he said.

Finn, the USDA breeder, said Oregon’s Willamette Valley continues to be the best place to grow berries and an ideal spot for researchers such as himself and respected OSU berry crop professor Bernadine Strik.

Good soils, plenty of moisture and warm summer days followed by cool nights result in good sugar and color development, and excellent flavor, Finn said.

“It’s hard to beat this climate for berries,” he said.


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