The Sunberry is one of many hundreds of plants created by Luther Burbank at his farm in Santa Rosa, California. Burbank’s work was extraordinarily broad ranging from potatoes to plums to daisies. In 1905 he introduced a plant he described as a hybrid cross between two members of the nightshade family, Solanum villosum and Solanum guineense. He called the plant a “Sunberry” and he sold the plant to a seed company which promptly re-named it “Wonderberry.” From the outset the classification of the Sunberry was the subject of minor dispute. Burbank strenuously maintained that the Sunberry was a new creation while a more skeptical view held it to be a smaller variant of the Garden Huckleberry (Solanum nigrum guineense). Today the argument remains unsettled although most give Burbank his due in the Latin title “Burbankii.”
The Sunberry is a smallish, lanky plant with an unkempt habit. Its flowers have five very small white-colored petals arranged in a wheel-like pattern that is characteristic of the Solanum family which includes potatoes and eggplant. Sunberries are small perhaps one half or one third the size of a fat blueberry. Plants bear four-to-eight berries in informal clusters with each berry ripening on a different schedule which makes harvesting a prolonged chore.
The flavor of a Sunberry is a tricky thing to describe. Eaten raw they are neither overtly fruity nor sweet. They have a mild flavor akin to a wild currant. They are much superior to a raw Garden Huckleberry which needs sugar and cooking to render it edible.
The Sunberry/Wonderberry never seemed to have caught on although it isn’t a difficult plant to grow. Perhaps the very modest yields and tedious labor at harvest were factors. Today the Sunberry is only a novelty amongst some heirloom gardeners such as members of Seed Savers.
Sunberries have naturalized in a few of my garden beds and I’m quite content to let them co-mingle with other crops. They seem not to intrude on other plants and its tiny berries offer a tasteful small bite as I pick work around them. Its curious that a 100 year old mild-manner plant with mild-tasting fruit should be overlooked in the way Sunberries have. Perhaps if the fruit were grotesquely enlarged or if the taste were a loud blast we would all know them. But a Sunberry it what it is.
In the early 1800s there was a popular phrase in American slang that went “that guy (gal) is a huckleberry guy(gal).” It implied two things: that the person was small or diminutive and that he (she) was just right for the task at hand. In an interview in 1895 Mark Twain acknowledged this meaning in naming his creation “Huckleberry Finn”. So while Luther Burbank might disagree I think its quite correct to say that “A Sunberry is a huckleberry of a plant.”
These Sunberries were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon, Sonoma County, California.
Vegetables of Interest, 2007