I’m thrilled beyond words to present this guest post by Nancy J. Ondra. Nan is a freelance garden writer with many books to her credit (see box at upper-right). She gardens on several acres at home and works as a horticulturist and propagator at Linden Hill Gardens in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. In her spare time Nan writes her own blog at Hayefield and is a contributor to Gardening Gone Wild.
When Brian asked me to write a guest post months ago, I was at a bit of a loss to pick a topic. I mostly grow ornamentals, after all, with an assortment of basic fruits, veggies, and herbs. But I do try to grow a few odd edibles each year, and when one of my co-bloggers at Gardening Gone Wild wrote about Luther Burbank’s garden, it reminded me that I hadn’t yet written about one of this year’s experiments: sunberry or wonderberry.
Trying to untangle the origin of this plant is a real challenge. Similar plants are available under a variety of botanical names, including Solanum x burbankii, S. burbankii, S. retroflexum, and S. melanocerasum, as well as several common names, including garden huckleberry as well as sunberry and wonderberry, Many gardeners who have grown the plant report being disappointed with the lack of flavor, especially if they grew it from seeds sold as S. melanocerasum. I acquired the seeds I grew this spring from Seed Savers Exchange (SSE Sunberry Page) under the names sunberry and S. burbankii. So I guess it would be safest to say that my observations apply only to plants from SSE seeds; who knows what you’ll get if you order it elsewhere!
I sowed the seeds indoors in late March, under lights and on a heat mat. They germinated and grew quickly, and they began flowering when they were just a few inches tall, while still in pots. I planted them outside in late May. At this point (almost mid-August), they’re about 18 inches tall.
Despite leaf damage from flea beetles, they’ve been flowering freely for almost three months now. The white flowers are small and not especially showy.
They certainly do fruit abundantly, though. The fruits stay green for quite a while, then quickly turn a dull, near-black color. The calyx of the fully ripe berries is yellow to brown.
Sunberries are very easy to pick: you just tickle the clusters with your fingers, and the ripe berries drop right off into your hand.
I’d read that some people liken the flavor of the pea-sized fruits to that of blueberries. I find them to be mild and pleasant, if a bit seedy, and I enjoy snacking on a handful every few days, but I wouldn’t say that there’s any flavor similarity to blueberries. A few weeks ago, I tried some on a co-worker and asked her what she thought they tasted like; she immediately said kiwi fruit, and I think that’s a good description. I’ve seen reports that the fruits freeze well, and that they are good for preserves and pies combined with lots of sugar. I’m not much of a cook, so I haven’t tried any of those uses. But I do think they’re tasty used fresh in fruit salads.
Would I grow them again? I’m not sure I’d buy and start the seeds, but I’m guessing that the plants are going to self-sow freely, and I’ll be happy to have them next year. Honestly, I’d much rather eat the raspberries and blackberries that are also ripening now, but once I share those sweeter fruits with the yellow jackets and the birds and my alpacas, there usually aren’t many left for me. With my sunberries, I never have to wonder if I’m going to get a snack for myself!