Hungry history

The story behind Oregon’s favorite berry


"Marionberries" by Tapir Girl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Oregon’s favorite berry, the marionberry.

Dylan Hess, Staff Writer

   It might be hard to believe, but we were almost called the Gresham Berry Pickers instead of the Gophers! While it sounds strange at first, Oregon is well known for its berries. Raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries all grow here, but Oregon actually created its own variety of berry over half a century ago, and it is still a staple of the state! If you haven’t already guessed, it’s the marionberry.

   Marionberries are a cultivar of blackberries, which we sure have a lot of here. A cultivar is essentially the domesticated version of a plant, cultivated by people to be better for us. The marionberry is a combination of two other kinds of blackberry; ‘chehalem’ and ‘olallie’.

   Chehalem berries are more flavorful, but smaller, and olallieberry bushes produce more berries. Crossbreeding them together created a berry that both tastes good and grows in large quantities; the marionberry.

   Marionberries were created in 1945 by member of the USDA Agricultural Research Service George F. Waldo, at Oregon State University. The berry was tested in a few areas beginning in 1948, and in 1956 it was officially released. It was named the marionberry after Marion County, where it was tested the most extensively.

   As of 2009, there has been a proposal to make the marionberry the official state berry of Oregon. At first, there was unanimous support of the proposal, but it was delayed by the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, after an objection by farmer Larry Duyck. Instead of growing marionberries, Duyck grows the Kotata cultivar of blackberries, and argues that making the marionberry the state berry would hurt the sales of other kinds of blackberry. As of now, legislators have agreed to not press the issue.

   Marionberries are still grown exclusively in Oregon, and they make up over half of blackberry production in the state. Variations of marionberries have even spread to other countries! A variety of berry called the silvanberry is grown in parts of Australia. It is a hybrid of the marionberry, (which is already a hybrid) and another hybrid of pacific blackberries and boysenberries. They are resistant to drought and wind, important qualities for a dry climate.

   It turns out that what seems like just a simple berry has a much more complicated history than meets the eye. The story that started over 70 years ago gave us a treat that people can still enjoy today.