Raspberries

I can remember when, as a child at summer camp in northern Wisconsin, I made the astonishing discovery that there were plants throughout the forests with fruit on them. Even though my family was keen on buying from local farmers, you had to drive to the farm, and you had to pay someone for the fruit (which was, by the way, already picked—not much charm in that for a child). But there I was, surrounded by fruit just waiting to be plucked from a gracefully arching branch. I could eat it any time I wanted—and it was free. This made me almost giddy with delight. While there were a few incredibly sweet wild blueberries, the most abundant fruit was raspberries.

Raspberries may not be what you think. Of course, the appearance of the word “berry” in the name might seem like justification for believing that these are, in fact, berries, but they’re not. They’re drupes–stone fruits, like cherries, peaches, and plums. Or, to be more precise, little drupelets, because each tiny globe in the cluster that comprises a single “berry” is a separate fruit with a tiny little stone in the center. (In case you ever wondered why those “seeds” were so hard, now you know.) Like all the other stone fruits, raspberries are members of the rose family.

Though many plants were under cultivation before written records were even imagined, raspberries, though popular in Europe since prehistoric times, were not domesticated until relatively recently. They appear to have not come under cultivation in Europe until the 1600s. However, since most things have historically come under cultivation because they needed improving, rather than because people liked the extra work, this neglect in domesticating raspberries is testimony to the fact that this fruit is just dandy in the wild (as I had discovered at camp). Some scholars say the Greeks domesticated them, but Roman historian Pliny the Elder identified raspberries as purely wild fruit. So it seems likely that “domestication” may simply have consisted of letting wild plants grow in one’s garden.

Wild raspberries exist in several regions of the northern hemisphere. However, despite the fact that raspberries were widely dispersed very early on (at the latest, by the Mesolithic period), the concentration of species suggests a possible point of origin. North America has three important species of raspberry, plus a few minor ones; Europe has one species of raspberry (though many cultivated varieties of that one species); and eastern Asia has more than two hundred known species. So, while scholars are hesitant to really nail down a precise location for the origin of raspberries, the general consensus is that eastern Asia seems like a pretty likely spot.

Despite the fact that North America has more species of raspberry than Europe, colonial Americans preferred imported European raspberries until the time of the Civil War. Even today, though we no longer import our raspberries from Europe, among raspberries under cultivation in the US, European raspberry varieties outnumber American varieties.

Europe’s one species, Rubus idaeus, was named for a mountain, Mount Ida in Turkey, where it was originally found in great abundance. At least that’s what Pliny the Elder tells us. Then in 1925, a French physician named Henri Leclerc published the following tale: There was a nymph named Ida, daughter of King Melissos of Crete, who was picking raspberries, which were white at the time, to feed a very young Jupiter. She scratched her breast on the thorny bushes, and her blood turned the raspberries red. Yum.

Raspberries are popular in the United States, though it seems they aren’t quite as popular as our indigenous blueberries. However, raspberries are huge in Great Britain. The relative importance of the raspberry in the British Isles can be illustrated by looking at the amount of land given over to growing it. In Great Britain, 10,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated. In the United States, which is about 40 times larger than Great Britain, about 11,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated. So while we’ve got a slight edge in the number of acres, in the percentage of land, we’re left in the dust.

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Filed under culinary history, Food, Geography, History

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