I moved around quite a bit when I was little, from upstate New York, where I remember picking wild blueberries, to Germany, where we gathered gooseberries, to the central coast of California, where blackberry vines grow in the mountains and suburban lots and our neighbors took great pride in their olallieberry jams and pies. For every spot on earth, it seems, there's a berry to be picked.
There's a kind of regional pride associated with berries: inky wild blueberries are as indelibly linked to summers in Maine as fat, juicy marionberries are to Oregon. Try chatting with a Texan about dewberries, and they'll talk your ear off about wild berry picking expeditions and Mom's dewberry jam.
According to the OED, a berry is "any fruit that has its seeds enclosed in a fleshy pulp, for example, a banana or tomato." Watermelons are berries, so are avocados and pumpkins. But when we talk about berries we are usually talking about the tiny, colorful, juicy sweet-tart jewels that we use in pies and jams.
We're all familiar with the usual suspects: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. This time of year, though, especially where I live on the West coast, we get all kinds of oddball berries at the market. What the heck are olallieberries, anyway? What is the difference between a tayberry and a loganberry? What are gooseberries good for? Consider this your field guide.
White and Golden Raspberry
Raspberries, like blackberries and many other thorny berries, are members of the Rosaceae family—just like roses. The raspberry family includes dozens of different varieties, which vary in color from very pale (almost white) to golden, blue, red, and black. The yellow variety shows up pretty regularly at farmer's markets.
Flavor: Like red raspberries but very mild and more floral, both a little less tart and a little less sweet than their darker counterparts.
Season: June, July, August
Uses: Lighter colored raspberries are extra delicate both in flavor and in texture so they're better suited to eating fresh than baking. Great for muddling in cocktails made with sparkling wine or club soda, whether they include gin or rum.
If you do want to bake 'em, galettes are a great way to go with all sorts of raspberries, since the fillings needn't be as sturdy as those for pie. Just lay a round piece of pie crust flat on a baking sheet, add a thick layer of uncooked berries, dust with sugar, fold over the edges, and bake in a hot oven (say, 400° F) just long enough to get the pastry nicely golden.
Black raspberry isn't just a sno-cone flavor; it's a raspberry that's colored like a blackberry. A reliable way to tell the difference between blackberries and black raspberries is that blackberries retain their inner cone when they are picked and black raspberries come off the core, leaving the picked berry hollow. While all the other colors of raspberries are fairly interchangeable when it comes to flavor and use, black raspberries are smaller, sturdier, and a bit more tart and earthy. Black raspberries are a native species to North America, as opposed to a hybrid like boysenberries, which they resemble.
Flavor: Similar to red raspberries but slightly more intense, tart, and with a deeper brambly flavor hinting towards blackberry.
Season: A very short, two to three week season, generally around July
Uses: Black raspberries are very versatile since they're slightly sturdier than other raspberries. Where lighter, more delicate berries tend to fall apart and might need more sugar or binding agents to keep them cohesive in a pie filling or a jam, the sturdier black raspberries hold together better. Put 'em in jam, pie, or muffins.
Dewberries are closely related to blackberries, and while they can be found in the wild across much of US, they're especially common in the South. The leaves are used for tea and are often called for in folk medicine (they're recommended for *ahem* lady issues, like raspberry leaf). The dewberry vine grows on creeping canes, lower to the ground than a blackberry plant. The stems have small, fine red hairs in addition to thorns. Dewberries ripen slightly earlier than blackberries.
Flavor: Comparable to wild blackberry, tart and intense.
Season: Late June through July.
Uses: Pie, cobbler, or a syrup for drinks.
When I was a kid a family friend made a yearly pilgrimage to a thicket of particularly delicious huckleberries in Point Reyes, CA. He kept the location top secret, but I don't think he would have had much competition, anyway; he came back from foraging every year with a raging case of poison oak. He claimed the huckleberry buckle was more than worth it.
Huckleberries are a smooth, round berry that ranges in color from red to dark blue. They're almost easier to forage than to find at the market (if you can avoid the poison oak, that is.) Huckleberries played such a large part in the cuisine of the Plateau Native Americans (Idaho, Montana, and Washington) that there still are festivals to celebrate the first harvest—dried huckleberries sustained native populations through long cold winters.
One difference between huckleberries and blueberries is the presence of seeds; blueberry seeds are so small that they you'd never know there were there. Huckleberry seeds are a little bit larger, though you don't need to spit them out or worry about separating them out for cooking- they're entirely edible.
Flavor: These sweet-tart flavor-packed berries are somewhat comparable to blueberry but more woodsy, almost vinous.
Season: Early to mid fall.
Uses: Huckleberries are great in pancakes; just add them in as you would blueberries. They're also excellent in scones, since they're nice and sturdy. If you want to go savory, cook huckleberries with just a little bit of sugar and serve with roasted meat.
Elderberries are tiny and blue-black, wonderful for baking and also for making into wine. The history of elderberry wine in England and in Central and Eastern Europe goes back hundreds of years—it was particularly popular in 17th century England as a purported cure for the flu and the common cold. The unripe berries and other parts of the plant have very mild toxic properties, which are neutralized when they are cooked or fermented. Even ripe berries can sometimes contain the alkaloids which will make you sick; it's best to be on the safe side and always cook or ferment them.
Elderflowers come from the same plant as elderberries, and have a heady fragrance and floral flavor, perfect for infusing into syrups, sodas, or cordials. (You've probably tried St. Germain before, but the homemade stuff is worth the effort.)
Flavor: Elderberries are very sour with a touch of sweetness. You'll need to cook them with sweetener to make them palatable but cooked they have a lovely floral, herbacious, deep berry flavor.
Uses: Use elderberries in buckles, pancakes, pies, galettes, shrubs, and sodas. The flowers make wonderful syrups and cordials.
You know where you've seen these guys before: in jam available in the food section of IKEA. Lingonberries play very prominently in Scandinavian cuisine; you really shouldn't serve Swedish Meatballs without a tart dollop of lingonberry sauce. Lingonberries are native to boreal forest and the arctic tundra. They are more recently being commercially cultivated in the Pacific Northwest.
These berries are closely related to cranberries, although I think they really seem more similar to gooseberries or red currants. Where I work at Tartine in San Francisco, a visiting Swedish chef recently made Swedish meatballs for everyone on his last night before heading home. For lack of lingonberries, he made cranberry sauce instead. He then spent the entire dinner crestfallen that the whole dish was ruined because the cranberries just weren't the same.
Flavor: Sour, tart, bright.
Season: Short arctic summer. Farther south you'll find them in late summer.
Use: Mash lingonberries raw with a sprinkle of sugar and spread on toast, pancakes, or cookies. Or cook them into a syrup, sauce, or compote, and serve as it traditional: with meatballs, elk, or reindeer. (Don't tell Rudolph.)
Cloudberries are native to the arctic tundra and only grow in extreme cold weather. They look a little like raspberries, but with fewer and larger lobes and a lovely orangey-rose color. They figure prominently in traditional Scandinavian cuisine, where they're used in compotes, vinaigrettes, and jams, and also appear in Inuit cuisine.
Cloudberries are so delicate and prefer such extreme growing conditions that they haven't been cultivated much in the past. They are fairly difficult to find, although they are starting to become more commercially available, perhaps thanks to a burgeoning American taste for all things Scandinavian.
Flavor: Cloudberries are very juicy, and they taste a bit like a cross between a raspberry and a red currant. They are fairly tart when eaten raw with a bit of floral sweetness.
Season: a short period in late summer.
Use: Cloudberries make a stunning deep ruby-amber jam with a lovely, balanced flavor.
Things get a little confusing here: there are two completely different berries called gooseberries. First are the Eurasian berries: tiny, translucent, super-tart green, rosy, or red berries reminiscent of currants. But there's also Physalis peruviana, sometimes called Cape Gooseberry, which is a South American fruit. More on those in a minute.
I'll say it here: Eurasian gooseberries are some of the most under-rated berries out there. Late in the season some of the red ones are good to eat raw, but most of the time they're mouth-puckeringly tart right off the bush. But that tart character makes these gooseberries fantastic for baking and for savory dishes. When mixed with a little sugar and cooked until soft, they become intensely aromatic and flavorful.
Flavor: Eurasian gooseberries are intensely sweet-and-sour and somewhat floral.
Use: You'll need to 'top and tail' gooseberries to remove the stalk and the remains of the flower before cooking. This can be done with a paring knife or small kitchen scissors. Then you'll want to cook and sweeten them—gooseberries make a great pie filling alone or mixed with strawberries. They also are fantastic made into a chutney, spiced with warm spices like allspice, cinnamon, and cardamom. Serve it as a condiment for chicken or on a turkey sandwich—or alongside fish like black cod.
Cape gooseberries are actually in the tomatillo family and come wrapped up in lovely little paper-like lanterns like tomatillos. They are more like tiny, firm cherry tomatoes than they are like most of the other berries in this list. They're one of my favorites for eating raw; there's something delightful about opening the little paper wrapping and popping them straight in your mouth.
Flavor: Mildly coconut-y and tomato-y. Cape Gooseberries are quite unique, with an almost creamy flavor and a slight grape-like tang.
Season: Varies widely depending on climate, anywhere from May through September.
Do you remember the myth of Pyramus and Thisbē? In that Romeo and Juliet-like story, the illicit lovers meet under a white mulberry tree. When the couple meets their untimely and bloody death under the tree (sorry, spoiler alert), the gods stain the berries red to memorialize their forbidden love.
These days, mulberries can be white, lavender, red, purple, or black depending on the type, but they are always 2-3 centimeters long and cylindrical. Asian varieties of mulberry are now common in North America, sometimes even pushing out the native types. Silkworms survive on a diet of mulberry leaves.
Flavor: Mulberries are almost sticky-sweet, though most have an astringency and tartness to balance it. White mulberries are a little more delicate in flavor, both less sweet and less tart.
Season: Late June through August, depending on the variety of mulberry and the climate.
Uses: Mulberries make a great ice cream; since they are so sweet the flavor comes across well even in a frozen state. They are also great for galettes and pies, and are a favorite for fruit wine or syrup. Use them as soon as you get them—mulberries don't last very long.
Many of the berries you'll see at the farmers market don't occur in nature: they're hybrids of other berries, created by planting fruit cross-pollinated by two different plants. (For more on hybrids and cross-pollination, head over to this article.) In the late 19th and early 20th century, botanists went on a bit of a hybridizing craze, crossing berries in the Rosacea family (like raspberries and blackberries) to try to come up with berries that had the best qualities of both parents.
Legend has it that the loganberry was accidentally created in the late 1800s in Santa Cruz, California, in the backyard of Judge J.H. Logan. Judge Logan planted an heirloom blackberry and a European raspberry next to each other. They cozied up, and with a little help from the birds and the bees the plants cross-pollinated.
Loganberries have a deep red raspberry color and the size and texture of a blackberry. The vines, which lack the substantial thorns of a blackberry, have dark green fuzzy leaves. The berries retain their cores (like blackberries do) but the flavor is somewhere in between: like a brambly raspberry or a softer blackberry.
Flavor: Loganberries taste a little like a raspberry and a little like a blackberry. Very flavorful and slightly tart.
Use: You can use these berries wherever you'd use blackberries: they shine in jams, galettes, and muffins.
If you're lucky enough to be in California in July, you might get to try some Tayberries (Yerena Farms in Watsonville grows lovely ones that they sell at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.) Tayberries are a more recent cross between raspberries and blackberries, developed by the Scottish Horticultural Society in the late 70s and named after the river Tay in Scotland.
Flavor: Partly raspberry-like, partly blackberry-like, a little larger and sweeter than Loganberries.
Season:Tayberries have a shorter season than blackberries or raspberries; instead of a continual harvest over a few weeks or months, they yield one large harvest in July.
Use: Tayberries are extremely delicate. If you need to store them, spread them flat on a sheet pan and leave them uncovered in the fridge. But it's better to use them up, and there are plenty of great ways to do it. Tayberries have a naturally high level of pectin, so they're perfect for jam and pie filling. If you're following a blackberry pie recipe, hold back a little on the sugar.
The origins of the boysenberry, which is a cross between the blackberry, dewberry, raspberry, and loganberry, are a little murky. Sometime in the 1920s Walter Knott, of Southern California's Knott's Berry Farm fame, tracked rumors of a particularly delicious large purplish berry to a defunct farm and a few failing brambles in Northern California. He rescued a few cuttings and cultivated them in Southern California, and a star was born. Boysenberries were popular and grown widely in Southern California during the middle of the 20th century, but commercial production has fallen off in recent years because the boysenberry is delicate and prone to bleeding, thus not suitable for shipping far or storing long. You can still find them at farmers' markets, especially on the West coast.
Flavor: Boysenberries are a treat: super-juicy with a wonderful balance of sweet and tart.
Use: These are really ideal for jam, since they offer such a nice dose of both tartness and sweetness. Great in pies, too.
Olallieberries are loveable mutts: a cross between the loganberry and the youngberry, each of which is a cross between a blackberry and another berry...basically a whole mess of delicious berries bred together. Olallieberries are primarily grown in Central California, where they have a somewhat fanatical following thanks to their juicy, bold flavor and delicate texture. U-pick berry farms along Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz are a great place to get this highly perishable and particularly delicious franken-berry, but they sell out of olallieberries every year toward the end of July.
Flavor: These berries have a flavor that recalls blackberries but with a deep winey note and noticeable bright tartness.
Use: Olallieberries will be quite pleased if you put 'em in pie; they aren't too tough or too delicate and they have a fair amount of pectin, so they hold together in a filling well without a ton of sugar or cornstarch. They also make good jam, but be careful not to overcook; that pectin content means they don't take long to gel and if cooked past the gel point will become unpleasantly thick and gooey.
The Marionberry is a type of blackberry that you'll most often see in Oregon; it's named after that state's Marion County, where it was developed. (No relation to the former mayor of Washington, D.C.) Marionberries tend to be larger and more conical than other blackberries, and they're a little juicier and sweeter than some of the other blackberry cultivars.
Flavor: A particularly sweet and flavorful blackberry.
Use: Buckle it, crumble it, pie it, jam it.