Beaty Biodiversity Museum
Camassia quamash, Camus Lily

University of British Columbia Herbarium

Personal Profiles of British Columbia Plants: Raspberry Rubus idaeus (Rose Family, Rosaceae)

© 2000 by Fred R. Ganders

A sweet coconutty, pineappley, slightly resinous-carroty mango is magnificent, mangosteens are ethereally delicious, Hawaiian papayas and juicy, old-fashioned, Pacific Northwestern peaches are awfully good, and blackberries are hard to beat, but my favorite of all fruits is the red raspberry. The scientific name of the raspberry, Rubus idaeus, means the rubus of Mt. Ida, in Greece, but the species occurs naturally in cool temperate regions of North America as well as Eurasia. In British Columbia the native plants are Rubus idaeus L. subsp. melanolasius (Dieck) Focke, and they are found in open forests and fields in the lowlands and montane zones, mostly in and east of the Cascade and Coast Mountains. Where I've seen wild raspberries most abundantly is in Wells Gray Provincial Park. The wild fruits are very good, but quite small. (Although I've seen expensive cultivated ones in supermarkets imported from California and Chile that aren't any bigger.)

Raspberry, Rubus idaeus

Raspberry cultivars (cultivated varieties grown in gardens or commercially) have been bred from European plants or hybrids of European and North American plants. Cultivated raspberries are an important local crop. The Fraser Valley of British Columbia, east of Vancouver, currently produces more raspberries than any other place on earth, although in some years Whatcom County, Washington, just across the border, produces more. A few years ago Yugoslavia was the largest producer, but the balkanizing wars of that region have taken their toll on raspberries as well as people.

Not only is British Columbia a leading producer of raspberries, but the biggest and best raspberries have been bred right here for our climatic conditions. Raspberry breeders have bred for large size, resistance to disease, spatially separated berries so that when one gets moldy it doesn't spread to all the others, and many other things, but less so for flavor. So it is partly fortuitous that the best tasting berries are also the largest. The two biggest and best tasting cultivars are 'Tulameen' and 'Chilliwack'. Both were bred By Dr. Hugh Daubeny at the Agriculture Canada Field Station in the Fraser Valley at Abbotsford, B. C. 'Chilcotin' is as big, but it is nearly tasteless. Or as the garden catalogs say, it has a sweet, mild flavor. Sweet, mild flavor is a horticultural and gastronomic euphemism for tasteless. (As in Asian pears have a sweet, mild flavor and an interesting mouth-feel like wet sand.)

Tulameen and Chilliwack produce berries 3-4.5 cm long. Both are sweet, ripe when bright red rather than dark or purplish red, have good sugar-acid balance, and a pure, strong raspberry flavor. I think Tulameen is better. Dr. Kennedy, Curator of Vascular Plants, thought Chilliwack was better the first time we had a comparative tasting of raspberry cultivars and experimental crosses at Abbotsford, but she thought Tulameen was better the next year. Yes, to us raspberry connoisseurs, flavor varies from year to year, as it is affected by weather and growing conditions, just like vintages of wine grapes. Chilliwack has a short main fruiting season of about 3 weeks. It is better for large scale growers and processors who want to harvest the entire crop in a short time. Tulameen has a fruiting season about twice as long, so it is better for home gardeners who want fresh berries for a longer time. Chilliwack is being planted commercially in Chile, where they like it because they pronounce it Chile-wack.

I cringe when I read famous garden columnists in local newspapers recommending antique cultivars like 'Willamette' for home gardeners. Willamette was bred in Oregon and released the year I was born, more than a half century ago. It was considered a big but sour berry when I was a kid slaving away 10 hours a day in the hot sun in the berry fields of the Puyallup Valley, Washington. But now its size is average, its flavor is average, and it is quite sour. Actually I didn't get to pick Willamettes when I was a kid. The farm I picked at grew New Washingtons, which were smaller, and harder to pick, but sweeter. Back then farmers got more money from the freezing plants for New Washingtons because they required less sugar, and back then sugar cost more per pound than raspberries! Darn, I'm old. Actually, when I started my garden 13 years ago I did plant Willamettes, but after I tasted a Tulameen, I threw them all out and replaced them with Tulameens.

Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis
Photo © Derek Tan

Tulameens and Chilliwacks grown in the Fraser Valley of B. C. are the best raspberries in the world. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will be as good when grown in other regions, or even that they will grow satisfactorily in other, colder, regions. And it doesn't mean that they should replace all older cultivars. Fall fruiting cultivars like 'Heritage' extend the raspberry season significantly, although the berries are small and not very juicy.

Rarely, golden fruited mutants of red raspberries may be found in the wild. Several golden fruited cultivars have been bred and are sold to home gardeners who want something different. In my opinion all have a sweet, mild flavor and aren't worth eating. And they wouldn't work in Death by Chocolate*. In the closely related salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis, which is the most common shrub around Vancouver, golden and red fruited plants are about equally common. No one knows why.

The raspberry has about the smallest and least conspicuous flowers of any of our species of Rubus, but who cares, you don't eat the flowers. The flowers do produce abundant nectar and honeybees and bumblebees love them.

*Death by Chocolate: Splash raspberry sauce (pureed raspberries and sugar) across a large plate (so it looks like splattered blood). Top with a large slice of chocolate pāte or chocolate truffle.

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