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Boysenberry, a California treasure

The flavorful, juicy fruit is no longer grown in great numbers in California, but it's worth seeking out at farmers markets and farm stands during its short season.

May 27, 2010|By David Karp, Special to the Los Angeles Times

When Knott started growing the new variety in 1932, he found it surpassed the standard dewberry at the time, the milder, Louisiana-bred youngberry, in size, yield and profitability. He named it boysenberry and introduced it to the public in 1934, launching such a hullabaloo that by the next year this newspaper would trumpet it as the "California-developed king of the bush," destined to trounce all rivals. From this start Knott's Berry Farm, as the giant amusement park became known, took off.

So did boysenberry plantings, which expanded to 559 acres in 1940, with Los Angeles County in the lead. Acreage declined during the war because of the scarcity and high cost of labor, but boomed in the postwar decade, reaching a peak of several thousand acres in the late 1950s. The Boysen was then the preeminent bush berry grown in California, far exceeding raspberries and other blackberries.

Meanwhile, as development consumed farmland near Los Angeles, most production shifted to the areas around Modesto and Fresno, and focused on processing. Boysens are not ideally suited to the San Joaquin Valley, particularly the hottest, most arid southern reaches, where broiling days scald the berries and plants, and low humidity and warm nights diminish fruit size; but growers made a go of it for many years, using migrant farmworkers and students for harvest labor.

In the 1960s, the Boysen began a slow decline: Its trailing habit made it difficult and expensive to manage; the plant was susceptible in coastal areas to fungal disease; the soft, leaky berry offered poor shelf life; supermarket chains and food service preferred fruits with year-round availability; competition from imported frozen Boysens diminished profits. The Boysen was supplanted by more productive, better-adapted hybrid blackberries, Olallie for fresh market in California, Marion for processing in Oregon. When picked ripe, these and similar Western varieties can offer very good flavor, but they are different from Boysens.

Today, improved varieties of Eastern blackberries, grown in Mexico, the Southeast and California, dominate the fresh market. Oregon, which has a large berry processing industry, grows most of the nation's remaining Boysens, some 600 acres, which are mechanically harvested at night when they are firmer and come off more readily.

Meanwhile, several breeders, including Chad Finn of the USDA in Corvallis, Ore., have pursued a dream of berries with the superb flavor of Boysen but firm enough to ship. Until recently, Finn's new varieties were not readily available in California. But three years ago, the Willems family of Kingsburg, south of Fresno, planted 20 acres of a complex hybrid involving Boysen, Logan and Marion, officially named newberry, which they are marketing as "Ruby Boysen" to chains including Trader Joe's, Costco and Albertsons.

Sweeter and lighter in color than Boysen, with a stronger skin, this variety has outstanding flavor. But it may never replace the original in the hearts of aficionados, who can only hope that if enough of them vote with their dollars, there may be life in the old berry yet.

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