When it comes to the berries in Oregon, historian Herbert Lang summed it up best in 1885, “The kinds of [berries] best known are blackberry, strawberry, huckleberry, salmon-berry, salal, oregon grape and others.”
Wild strawberries, Frasaria chiloensis in coastal Oregon and Frasaria rubris inland, were the native berries which were gathered and eaten regularly. Frasera virginiana, an Oregon woodland native strawberry, received acclaim for its notoriety as being the first strawberry species collected for science.
When nurseryman Henderson Luelling came across the Oregon Trail in 1846, he brought with him the first strawberry variety, the Wilsons, to the Willamette Valley. Luelling, along with his two brothers and a son-in-law, established a plant nursery in the Willamette Valley.
During this time period, the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 required anyone who homesteaded to improve their land. Most homesteaders opted for planting fruit trees on their properties. Luelling’s nursery sold grafted fruit tree stock for $1.50 per tree. This was an excessive price at the time but Luelling had one of the few nurseries in the region at the time. Struck by several tragedies of losing two wives, Luelling eventually moved to California where he planted several new orchards in Oakland.
From 1880 to 1920, large farms growing strawberries in the Gresham area catapulted Oregon to one of the major strawberry growing regions in the United States. Along with Gresham, Hood River also held a strong hold on growing berries. Ninety percent of the growers in the area at that time were Japanese immigrants bringing a newly cultural experience to the area. After 1920, Oregon State University in collaboration with the USDA-ARS developed another famous outstanding variety, the Corvallis.
Today in the Willamette Valley the primary strawberry growing range extends as far south as Eugene, Oregon with multiple small farms along the length of the valley, including several certified organic farms.
Blackberries and Raspberries
Herbert Lang writes in History of the Willamette Valley “There is no country in the known world where wild berries are so common as in Oregon."
One hundred years later, this is still going strong. The Evergreen blackberry, the wild and destructive vine, came to the Oregon Territory in the early to mid 1800s either from Hawaii or along the Oregon Trail. The only native blackberry to Oregon, Rubus ursinus has a rich and cultural history in the state.
In a complex breeding system lay new innovations of berries. the By 1910, Gresham was the capital of the raspberry world. Several crosses of the Himalaya blackberry with the Santiam lead to the creation of the Chehalem berry. This cross with the olallie berry produced the infamous, marionberry. By 1910, Gresham was the Capital of the raspberry work in Oregon. In California in 1881, on a piece of private property, nurseryman James Logan accidentally planted several raspberries near some blackberries and created a new popular breed now the Loganberry.
This berry crossed with the infamous olallie berry created the present day boysenberry, a favorite among Oregonians. Oregon State University and other valley growers continue to cross breeds of berries creating new version of edible creations.
Damian Fagan, in his recently published book, Wildflowers of Oregon chronicles the history of Ribes aureum, the golden currant. He quotes Merriweather Lewis, “ sic the berries are ‘transparent as the red currant of our gardens, not so ascid and more agreeabley favord.’ These yellow fruits were historically eaten by Native Americans. He also showcases six other currants or relatives to the commercial gooseberry of which three are edible.
The ancestor of the present day Gooseberry, was highly adored during the late 18th and early 19th century. Before arriving in the Americas from England, the modern cultivated gooseberry that was grown, was sweeter and larger than the native varieties. Three presidents, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan adored gooseberries and each had their own favorite dessert. Their favorites recipes were respectfully, Gooseberry Fool, Gooseberry Pie and Gooseberry Tart. In the United States, there were prominent Gooseberry clubs which plot tested and attempted to grow the largest gooseberry. Interest in gooseberries plummeted when plants from the United States introduced a mildew disease to England which almost eliminated most of the Gooseberries in England. Thereafter in the Americas, other fruits from around the world would soon upstage the gooseberry.
Today in Oregon, nurseries grow many different species of gooseberries found throughout the Willamette Valley.
When Luelling came across the Oregon trail, he settled in Milwaukee,and started his Nursery. There he employed a Chinese man named Ah Bing who is responsible for bringing the bing cherry into the Pacific North West.
By 1880, 35,000 chinese worked in the gold fields, building railroads in Oregon and some became entrepreneurs. Ah Bing worked in John Day, Oregon along with 2,000 other Chinese. First hand accounts of Bing’s life came from the first female attorney for the state of Oregon, Florence Ledding. Ledd’s mother married Seth Luelling, the owner of the first nursery. Ledding reported test rows for the cherry trees. The first imported cherry tree that bloomed was in Bing’s row, hence the name, Bing cherry.
After 100 years of people arriving in this mecca of great soils, cool climate and spectacular vistas, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries still carry the allure of a distant past into the modern day of Oregon.