B.C.'s Best Berries
Image by photos by Hugh Daubeny
While growing conditions are particularly good in our province's southwestern coastal region and through the southern interior, berry cultivars exist that will also work well in other regions. However, with so many cultivars available of every type of berry, it can be hard to choose the right one for your needs. With that in mind, I present a selection of the best berries for B.C. gardens.
Strawberries are the first fruit to ripen in spring - always a highly anticipated event, often recognized by traditional teas and festivals. Currently the best cultivar to grow is 'Totem,' which begins to ripen in early to mid-June and produces luscious, deep-red fruit for more than three weeks. 'Totem' has the quintessential strawberry flavour and is ideal for eating fresh. The fruit is also perfect for freezing or for jam, allowing you to enjoy its flavour throughout the winter months. Plants are vigorous, relatively tolerant of virus diseases, with some resistance to red stele root rot and several leaf diseases. 'Totem,' the leading strawberry cultivar throughout the Pacific Northwest for more than 25 years, came from the breeding program sponsored by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Pacific Agriculture Research Centre (PARC).
'Rainier,' originating from the Washington State University breeding program, ripens later than 'Totem' and stretches the season in which to enjoy delicious local strawberries. Like 'Totem,' it is vigorous and offers much disease resistance, although the fruit is softer and more susceptible to rot. 'Puget Reliance,' a recent introduction from Washington, is a very productive and vigorous plant that is resistant to most common diseases. The large fruit, which ripens about the same time as 'Totem,' is softer but, surprisingly, no more susceptible to rot. These three cultivars are the most suitable of the "June-bearers," but if you want strawberries later in the summer, I suggest you try the "day neutrals," either 'Tristar' or 'Tribute.' Day neutrals flower and fruit until well into autumn and produce a continuous supply of fruit, but not in any great quantity - perhaps a few every other day to enjoy with your breakfast cereal. Flavour is usually milder than the June-bearers. If available, 'Seascape' and 'Diamante,' two newer day neutrals, are worth trying.
Most raspberries ripen just as the strawberries start to taper off, and what better way to continue enjoying B.C. berry fruits? 'Tulameen' is the current favourite in produce markets and because of its long harvest season, as much as six weeks, is an especially good choice for the home garden. Another cultivar, 'Malahat,' starts the raspberry season and produces large, juicy fruits nearly as tasty as 'Tulameen.' Mid-season ripeners 'Chilliwack' and 'Qualicum' also produce delicious fruit that keep well, always a consideration with raspberries. 'Chilliwack' is particularly good for heavier soil types, as is the darker-coloured 'Meeker,' still the most widely planted cultivar for the processing market.
With the exception of 'Meeker,' which was introduced from Washington 35 years ago, these cultivars were developed by the PARC program. Several new cultivars from this program may be available soon, including 'Cowichan' and 'Chemainus' which produce fine-quality fruit, quite comparable to 'Tulameen' or 'Qualicum.' 'Esquimalt' has particularly large fruit that ripen so late they will give a good overlap with the early-fall fruiting 'Autumn Bliss,' which was developed in the United Kingdom. 'Heritage,' from Cornell University, New York, is another fall-fruiting cultivar and produces from mid-September through to the first frosts. Invariably, the fall-fruiting cultivars lack the strong raspberry flavour of the summer-fruiting ones, but are great for extending the season in which to enjoy fresh raspberries. Two older cultivars, 'Chilcotin' and 'Skeena,' from the PARC program, are still recognized as good bets for the home garden. 'Chilcotin' has a bright, non-darkening red colour and has been credited with helping to revive the fresh market industry in B.C., though its flavour is a bit bland compared to the newer cultivars. 'Skeena' is early ripening, about the same season as 'Malahat,' and has a pleasant flavour. It has a rather dull cast to it, so does not stand out like 'Tulameen' and the other new cultivars.
'Willamette,' once the main cultivar grown in B.C., is a reliable producer, but its fruit is dark and has an acidic flavour. The so-called winter-hardy cultivars, such as 'Killarney,' 'Boyne' and 'Latham,' may be alright on the Prairies where conditions are too cold for better cultivars like 'Tulameen,' but none compares to the fruit quality that we equate with B.C.-grown raspberries. 'Algonquin,' another cultivar from the PARC program, does well in Ontario, but again its fruit does not match the quality of cultivars such as 'Tulameen' and 'Malahat.' However, if you are concerned about winter hardiness, I would recommend giving 'Algonquin' a try.
Most of us are used to harvesting the thorny 'Himalaya Giant,' the ubiquitous blackberry brought to the Pacific Northwest well over 100 years ago from the United Kingdom. Over the decades it has become invasive and is now choking out desirable species, including the high-quality native trailing blackberry. In recent years, 'Loch Ness' from Scotland has become an important alternative. It has thornless, semi-erect canes and produces large, relatively firm fruit with good flavour and shelf life, as well as a long harvest season - late July to late September and even into early October. I grow 'Loch Ness' in my garden and highly recommend it, and the thornless canes also make for easy management.
Hybrid berries, the best known of which are 'Loganberry,' 'Boysenberry' and 'Tayberry,' have both raspberry and blackberry in their derivations. Like blackberries, hybrid berry fruit harvest with the core. 'Loganberry' and 'Boysenberry' were both chance discoveries in the early part of the 20th century. 'Loganberry' produces large, dark burgundy-red fruit with a sharp and distinctive flavour. I like eating it fresh, and it makes superb jams and pies. 'Boysenberry' also produces large, dark-red fruit, glossier than 'Loganberry' and with a less sharp flavour. Neither is quite as winter hardy as 'Tayberry,' which came from a Scottish breeding program. 'Tayberry' fruit is soft, but delicious fresh and makes splendid jam and preserves. All the hybrid berries are adapted to southwestern coastal conditions, but I advise planting in protected sites, especially 'Loganberry' and 'Boysenberry.'
Although most modern-day blueberry cultivars are partially self fertile, fruit set is usually improved by growing more than one cultivar. There are many cultivars adapted to B.C. conditions, but probably the best known is the midseason-ripening 'Bluecrop,' which has a vigorous, productive bush with large, light-blue, firm fruit with mild flavour. Chances are that 'Bluecrop' is featured in the frozen blueberries you buy at the local supermarket. 'Earliblue,' 'Duke,' 'Spartan,' 'Reka' and 'Patriot' are early-ripening with sweet, flavourful fruit. 'Earliblue' is not as winter hardy as the others and best restricted to coastal regions. Both 'Duke' and 'Spartan' show concentrated ripening and can be harvested in two picks. 'Reka,' a new cultivar developed in New Zealand, is attracting attention because of its wide adaptability and productivity. 'Patriot,' another heavy cropper, is well adapted to colder growing regions and to heavy, wet soils. Besides 'Bluecrop,' other mid season-ripening cultivars include 'Northland,' 'Hardyblue' and 'Blueray.' All produce fine-flavoured fruit, with 'Blueray' perhaps being the most consistent yielder with large, firm, dark-blue fruit. 'Elliott' is the latest-ripening cultivar grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest and is ideal for extending the blueberry harvest season into the fall. The medium-size fruit is slightly tart. 'Brigitta,' an exceptionally vigorous cultivar from Australia, also ripens late and produces fruit that keeps exceptionally well. 'Northsky' and 'Northblue,' as well as 'Northland,' are particularly winter-hardy cultivars and can withstand temperatures as low as -40°C. If you're considering growing blueberries, keep in mind another benefit. Most of the available cultivars have vivid leaf colours in the autumn and make attractive additions to the landscape.
I am always somewhat amazed that cranberries can be produced successfully in the home garden. The cultivars I recommend are those grown commercially in the famous bogs of the Lower Mainland, including 'Ben Lear,' 'Bergman,' 'McFarlin,' 'Pilgrim,' and 'Stevens,' which produces especially large, firm fruit. Obviously, there are many candidates for B.C.'s best berries, and there is certainly a candidate for almost every situation! Nevertheless, I will go "out on a limb" and summarize my picks for the best overall cultivar of each of the berry crops: strawberry - 'Totem'; raspberry - 'Tulameen'; blackberry - 'Loch Ness'; hybrid berry - 'Tayberry'; blueberry - 'Bluecrop' - and maybe 'Blueray' to improve fruit set; cranberry - 'Stevens.' Others may disagree with these choices, but what works in your own garden, of course, is always the best test. Since planting in early spring is usually best, make an early check of your local garden centre to ensure you can find your first choice. And whatever the choice, select healthy-looking plants with some green leaves showing and good fibrous root systems.