USDA a wellspring of caneberry cultivars
Black Diamond sales outpace all other varieties in Northwest
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
WOODBURN, Ore. -- Thanks to the USDA Agricultural Research Service caneberry breeding program in Corvallis, Ore., blackberry and raspberry growers have numerous crop choices today that offer several advantages over well-proven commercial cultivars.
One of the biggest success stories in recent years has been the thornless, trailing blackberry variety Black Diamond, which was released by the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Unit in 2005.
"For about six years now Black Diamond has been the No. 1 selling cultivar (at nurseries) here in the Northwest," said USDA Agricultural Research Service research geneticist Chad Finn, who spoke here at a recent meeting of caneberry growers.
In an interview after his talk, Finn said that from 2004, when the first numbered selections were planted, through 2011, there were close to 690,000 Black Diamond plants sold, versus 450,000 Marionberry plants during the same time.
"It's starting to get up to significant acreage," he said.
Marionberry still ranks as Oregon's signature blackberry variety. According to the most recent figures, there were 7,100 acres of blackberries growing in Oregon, with 4,000 acres of Marionberry and 700 acres of Black Diamond.
While Black Diamond and Marionberry pedigrees are similar, Black Diamond does have some features that make it more popular with growers than Marionberry.
For one, yields aren't as erratic as in some areas, Finn said. But the primary distinction is that Black Diamonds, as is also the case with some other new cultivars, are thornless.
Thorny blackberries are seen as a problem mainly because of lawsuits that can arise when thorn-embedded fruit is eaten.
"If Marion was thornless, growers wouldn't be so interested in looking for new varieties," Finn said.
Compared to Marionberry, Black Diamond also "appears to be a little more cold-hearty and a little more higher-yielding," Finn said. Where it falls short is in taste. He added, however, that there is a large market for blackberries with "just good enough flavor."
Finn and his associates also have at least five other new thornless blackberry cultivars either commercially available or close to it, and have developed some improved fresh market varieties that ship well.
Another USDA caneberry breeding advance in recent years is the raspberry primocane cultivar Vintage, which bears fruit on first-year canes in the fall. In addition to producing a good tasting, later-maturing, fresh market berry, Vintage's growth habit allows growers to more easily manage the crop.
Finn has also made some black raspberry selections that are more disease resistant and higher-yielding than the industry standard Munger.
"We're optimistic that within a few years we will have at least some different options for growers," he said.
No longer just a colorant, black raspberries are finding increasing popularity in commercial jams and jellies, Finn said.
One thing that has driven an increase in blackberry consumption "in a big way" is Mexico, now the world's largest grower, Finn said. Mexican fresh market blackberries, which are consumed from November to late May in the U.S., have also increased American demand for Oregon-grown berries.