I can’t be the only one who is guilty of planting crops and not doing anything with them. I guess I just like to watch plants go through all their life cycles, whether or not I find any use in them. Lately I have made it a challenge to make the most of all that is grown in the garden. And of course, I love to eat. So finally it’s time to do something with the prolific, black-fruiting garden huckleberry and the closely-related wonderberry.
What the hell are these poisonous-looking edible berries?
While not terribly common, garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasum) is found more often in gardens in Tucson than wonderberry (Solanum x burbankii). That is probably because Native Seeds/SEARCH has been making a Mayo selection of this species available for years. Both have been sporadically available through specialty seed sources for years, but recently, with all the efforts to bring back heirloom fruits and vegetables, they’ve made a humble comeback.
This year I decided to grow wonderberry. I’ve heard it’s sweeter than the common huckleberry and I just happened to have seeds. This species is actually a hybrid developed by the legendary plant geek Luther Burbank in the early 1900s. He originally called it Sunberry, but when he sold the rights to the seed to nursery agent John Lewis Childs, it was renamed wonderberry, and its qualities somewhat embellished and exaggerated. That didn’t turn out to be a great marketing plan, because the public made the wonderberry a target for ridicule (poor Luther Burbank didn’t have anything to do with that marketing faux pas but was lumped in). So wonderberry went by the wayside for some time.
All that aside, the wonderberry is a fun little crop that produces a lot of fruit, especially when grown in full sun. The fruits are best when they have fully ripened (when they are almost black with no green color left in the skin). Raw they have a slight tomato flavor and just a hint of sweetness. We are making jam with our crops this year.
Both the garden huckleberry and wonderberry are best in full sun, average garden soil and water. They are forgiving plants, and not particularly needy, though you might stake them with something sturdy, especially as they become loaded down with fruit. They look a lot alike, though the wonderberry plant doesn’t get as large as the garden huckleberry. Both will naturalize in the garden and come up year after year from seed. If they don’t see frost, they will persist. Plant from seed in the spring (you probably won’t find plants in any nursery). The leaves of garden huckleberry are edible when cooked. I am not sure if wonderberry leaves are similarly edible. They probably are, but I ain’t gonna try to find out.