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The Wonderberry grows as a bushy, erect shrub which reaches on average a height of 12 and 24 inches. Plants produce clusters of small round berries about the size of blueberries and will turn from green to shiny black-blue when ripe. Wonderberries have a juicy, highly seeded interior and offer a soft texture and mild, just slightly sweet flavor when ripe. Wonderberries are rarely eaten raw; rather, they are best cooked with sugar as a jam, jelly or pie filling. There is some debate as to whether or not unripe, green Wonderberries are TOXIC, to be safe only consume Wonderberries when they are fully ripe and blue-black in color.
Wonderberries are available late summer to fall.
The Wonderberry, also known as the Sunberry, was originally botanically classified Solanum burbankii and today is classified as Solanum retroflexum. The fruit was created by renowned American plant breeder, Luther Burbank over 100 years ago when he crossed Solanum guinense of West Central Africa with Solanum villosum of Chile. Wonderberry bears a close resemblance to the garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasum) but is, in fact, a separate species. Many of these black colored berries of the Solanum genus are loosely referred to as “black nightshade”, though they should not be confused with “deadly nightshade” Atropa belladonna, which is an entirely different genus.
Wonderberries offer some dietary fiber and may offer the antioxidant anthocyanin which is found in many purple and blue hued fruits and vegetables.
The just slightly sweet flavor of Wonderberries is best utilized in sweetened and cooked applications. Use Wonderberries in baked goods as you would any other berry and add to muffins, bread, pies, tarts, and scones. One of the most popular preparations of Wonderberries is cooked down with sugar to make jams, jellies, syrups, and sauces. When making jam Wonderberries benefit from the addition of pectin if a jam with a thick consistency is preferred. Combine Wonderberries with other berries to make a filling for pies or a base for sorbet and ice cream. To store, keep Wonderberries refrigerated and use within a week.
The original botanical name for Wonderberries, “burbankii” was given in honor of the world famous American plant breeder Luther Burbank who created them. His breeding methods of planting seeds on large plots of land and hand selecting ideal plants to cross were considered unscientific by some plant breeders of that time, but they yielded many still today famous garden plants. So acclaimed was Burbank in his time that he was referred to as the greatest plant genius of all time by Thomas Alva Edison.
After its initial release in 1909, the Wonderberry quickly became the subject of great debate and controversy. Originally called Sunberry creator Luther Burbank sold the seed rights to nurseryman, John Lewis Childs. Releasing the fruit under the name Wonderberry Childs promoted it as Luther Burbank’s greatest creation and touted it as “the greatest garden fruit ever introduced.” Since Burbank was not himself, a scientist many plant experts at the time were resentful of his successes and critical of his breeding methods. Herbert W. Collingwood, president, and editor of The Rural New Yorker, jumped on this opportunity to discredit both Burbank and Childs claiming the Wonderberry was unpalatable and a poisonous form of black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) in a series of scathing editorials. Burbank offered a $10,000 reward to anyone that could prove his berry to be Solanum nigrum and the debate over this went on in publications both in the United States and Europe for some time. It would not be until the 1950’s that modern science would provide a means to end the great debate, and Burbank’s Wonderberry (Sunberry) would be proved to be the fruit he had always claimed it to be. Unfortunately, though the public had already long since dismissed the berry, and the fruit never became a commercially successful cultivar.