Wild Berries - history, production, trade

The word “wild berries” refers to a mixed group as to species and to type of fresh fruit, called also with other synonyms, such as “small fruit” or “fruit of the forest”. They are spontaneous plants of the brushwood, whose fruits are small: the fruits, in fact, develop in the specific humid climate of the brushwood and include all the “berry” species that grow naturally, such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, currant, wild strawberries and gooseberry.

Although wild berries grow spontaneously in woods or mountain environments, today they are also cultivated, sometimes using the typical modern farming methods, but, more often in a semi traditional way.

Wild berries are traded above all in summer: they are also considered “minor fruits” because they perish easily with the consequence that wild berries are not very suitable to be traded on the international fruit and vegetable market compared to other summer fruit, such as for example pears and peaches.

Wild berries are low in calories and very rich in beneficial nutritional values: they are rich in vitamin A, vitamin C and some vitamins of the B group, basic elements for our health that are able to strengthen our immune system, to protect our cardiovascular system and enhance the formations and the renewal of collagen, the structural protein par excellence that is found everywhere in our body, from the skin to the cartilage, from tendons to bones, from teeth to vessels. Furthermore, wild berries are also rich in mineral salts and organic acids, such as potassium and magnesium, very important for the correct functioning of many bodily functions of our body; they contain also carotenoids, antioxidants and precursors of vitamin A, essential to preserve the sight.

Wild berries stand out for the considerable supply of fibres, necessary to permit the development of a healthy bacterial flora, to regulate the intestinal functions and protect the body from colon cancer. Of course the most important quality of wild berries is the high content of antioxidants, very important substances that fight against the free radicals action (extremely reactive compounds, responsible for the ageing of tissues), thanks to the action of flavonoids, of which wild berries are rich, that is compounds of the family of polyphenols, water-soluble and known also as bioflavonoids or vitamin P: they are responsible for the blue-violet colour (caused by anthocyanins or anthocyans) of almost all wild berries, as also many other flowers or fresh fruits.

Apart from antioxidant, wild berries are also antiradical and they contrast the capillary fragility, cellular modification and the effects of hypercholesterolemia (the excess of cholesterol in the blood)

The most widespread species of wild berries are:

  • STRAWBERRY OR WILD STRAWBERRY (botanical name: Fragaria x ananassa, an hybrid between F. virginiana and F. chiloensis or Fragaria vesca): it is a perennial herbaceous plant, belonging to the family of Rosaceae, which spreads through runners and is characterized by a short stem mainly under the ground (root stock), on which there are leaves and inflorescences; from the base of the stem start also primary and secondary roots which form a collated root system. The flowers, grouped in inflorescences, have five white petals. The pollination can be anemophilous (wind) and entomophilous (pollinators insects).

Wild strawberries are far smaller than their bigger sisters and moreover, their taste and flavour are more intense and sweet; they are harvested from June to August.
From a botanic point of view, wild strawberries are a false fruit: the real fruit, actually, are achenes, those “seeds” that are more or less deeply present on the skin surface.
According to the varieties of strawberries, the fruits have different shapes and colours; they can be more or less round or conical with the colour varying from red-orange to dark red.
The harvesting is linked to the kind of strawberries cultivated, but if appropriately programmed, usually it extends from May to September.

The plants of strawberries are divided in two groups: June bearing and ever-bearing; the first type of strawberries flower and ripen only once in spring, while the ever-bearing flower and fructify almost continuously from spring to the first winter colds.
The wild strawberries propagate through runners, that is with creeping stems that originate during the vegetative phase and that, by rooting, originate a new plant like the mother plant. Wild strawberries multiply both by vegetative means and by seeds; in particular the variety Regina delle Valli multiplies only by seeds as this plant does not produce runners.
This kind of fresh fruit needs a fresh, loose, fertile soil without water stagnations with a subacid – acid reaction (pH 6.5-5.5). Furthermore, wild strawberries are sensitive to the lack of iron (chalky soils with high pH).
Wild strawberries adapt very well to all the climate areas, from hills to mountains high up to 1,500 meters, where precious late-summer production can be obtained. The perfect average temperatures for the plant should be between 20 and 25 °C:: however, as this plant suffers climate excesses, extreme values both in summer and in winter, can be fatal. In particular, as to the cultivations of wild strawberries, they are particularly sensitive to spring frosts that cause flower necrosis and consequent deformations of fruits; also extended rainfalls in the period between the flowering and the ripening are harmful: the product is in fact infected by fungus pathogens causing health problems.
Nowadays, on the international fruit and vegetable market there are different kind of plants of wild strawberries, which differ according to the product that we want to obtain.
In general, when purchasing the plants, we can choose among fresh strawberry seedlings for early spring harvestings, refrigerated seedlings for plantings that can be done in every period of the year for spring productions, off season and in open field, and seedlings in pots for spring productions that root quickly.

  • JOSTABERRY (botanical name: Ribes nigridolaria). It is a bush with deciduous leaves, belonging to the family of Saxifragaceae. The plant is an hybrid resulting by crossbreeding currant and gooseberry: in fact, its name comes from the combination of the first part of the German names of the progenitors. In fact, the jostaberry plant is born from the will to improve the characteristics of being spiny of the gooseberry and the sensitiveness to rust of the blackcurrant: this aims were reached creating a less pleasing fruit from a product point of view.The taste of this hybrid fruit reminds both of the blackcurrant and of the gooseberry, even though the flavour of both the species is less strong. The plant of the jostaberry is a quite vigorous bush, easy to cultivate, with rising branches that can be higher than two metres; the leaves are deciduous, intense green and 5 cm large on average. The bush is very resistant to the rigours of winter and fits well to the mountain climates; however, the spring awakening is early and thus the jostaberry is sensitive to late frosts.

The fruits are produced on one-year-old branches, but also on older wood and they are usually grouped in 3-5 berries small clusters: a quite satisfying production of jostaberries is followed by a medium-strong pruning, with which whole branches are taken away from the base of the bush. Jostaberries are bright red berries with a diametre of 1.5-2 cm that, like the blackcurrant, are extremely rich in vitamin C: these fruits are very gaudy and they are certainly striking if put together with other wild berries and if used in confectionery; for these characteristics, the cultvation of jostaberry is recommended only for limited areas along with other small fruit plantings.
Because of the hybrid nature of the jostaberry and the resulting prevalence of improved characteristics, there are few or none phytosanitary problems afflicting this cultivation; attacks by currant sawflyes (Pteronideal ribesii) are rare and the problem can be solved through an insecticide treatment immediately after the first damages.

  • RASPBERRY (botanical name: Rubus idaeus). It is a bushy shrub, belonging to the family of Rosaceae, with deciduous leaves. The grouped root system, represents the perennial part of the plant of raspberry, while the fruit of the plant, that is the raspberry, is a summer fruit (ripening period varying from May to September), sweet and loved a lot by children.

The taste of the raspberry changes according to the variety, but it is usually sweet-flavoured; also the colour of the raspberry changes from a cultivar to another, and its colour can have shades of red, but also yellow and black.
According to the type of fructification, raspberries can be divided in two categories: June bearing raspberries and ever bearing raspberries. The June bearing raspberries varieties fructify only once in a year, while the ever bearing varieties fructify both on the old branches – at the beginning of summer – and on new branches – in September.
The raspberry is nowadays the most cultivated wild berry, but also the one that is more exigent as to substratum: in fact, even though it is a rustic plant that adapts to different soils, it prefers soils rich in organic substances, loose, fresh, free from lime scale, with a sub-acid reaction (pH 6-6.5) and well drained to avoid the risk of chlorosis or root asphyxia.
The June bearing raspberry can be cultivated up to 1,200-1,500 metres above the sea, while the ever bearing raspberry gives a good production of raspberries up to 800-900 metres above the sea level. It is significant to highlight that every 100 metres of difference in altitude, raspberries ripen 4 days earlier or later. The raspberry handles well the low winter temperatures and the less high summer temperature.
Raspberries are cultivated in rows, using stakes and lines on which the vine-branches are tied: it is advisable to protect the soil with black plastic cloths to avoid the development of pests and weeds. When irrigating, leaves must not be watered to avoid the development of fungal diseases. The fruit of raspberry is ripe when it can be pulled out easily from the peduncle.
Raspberries are excellent to be consumed fresh, but also to be frozen; moreover, they have great beneficial properties for the body. The raspberry is in fact rich in vitamin C and B, zinc, iron, and folic acid; they are diuretic, depurative, astringent and refreshing. Raspberries are recommended also to people suffering from anaemia and rheumatism.
Raspberry infusions are slightly laxative and since centuries they are used by pregnant women at their last month of pregnancy to prepare for the delivery. Finally, raspberries are recommended also in diets of people suffering from diabetes.

  • BLUEBERRY (botanical name: Vacciniu corymbosum – giant blueberry from North America): it is a spontaneous busy shrub, belonging to the family of ericaceae, that develops mainly in the Northern Europe and in North America. The flavoured plant of blueberries is an upright bushy shrub, characterized by sprouts that develop from the base or from the collar. The root system, superficial and wide is formed by very thin roots; the flowers, white or light pink, are bell shaped, turned toward the bottom and are grouped in inflorescences. The fruit, instead, is a round berry, whose colour varies from light blue, to blackish blue or red, and it is made lighter thanks to a pruinose layer typical of the variety considered. The flesh is white-greenish and is sweet-acid, more or less flavoured.

Blueberries form the genus Vaccinium, which includes about 400 species. The typical European blueberry, which grows spontaneously is the Vaccinium myrtillus; the American blueberry, also called giant blueberry, actually comes from the Vaccinium Corymbosum, a shrub selected in the XX century in North America in the Great Lakes region. The giant blueberry, Vaccinium Corymbosum, bears the flowers in a corymb (similar to a cluster); instead of the European blueberry, the plant is more vigorous, the fruit is larger and compact, has a sweeter taste and the flesh is lighter. The other species, such as the Rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei), is less widespread in Europe and comes from the warmer regions of North America.
We can actually say that blueberries consumed fresh nowadays are from the species Vaccinium Corymbosum, while the blueberries used in the jam and syrup industry are from the European or Canadian species of Vaccinium myrtillus. Even though they have different chemical compositions, both are rich in polyphenols and in general of natural antioxidant substances (Mirtilene and others).
In general, blueberries, in their blue, black and red varieties, are harvested from June to September; among the wild berries mentioned here, blueberries are absolutely the most rich in anthocyanins, which protect the capillaries: they are a lot of help against the disorders of the microcirculation and the imperfections that derive from them. Also their protective action on the sight is well known. Thanks to the combination of antioxidants and antibacterials, blueberries are helpful in fighting and prevent cystitis, gastroenteritis, prostatitis and urethritis; the pure juice of red blueberries, drunk in the evening before going to sleep, helps to keep far away bacteria and to avoid the infections of the urinary system.
Blueberries are cultivated in not deep soils (30-40 cm), well drained, rich in organic substances; this kind of fresh fruit is very exigent as to the reaction of the soil. With a good lignification process in Fall, the plant of blueberries shows a high resistance to cold (even up to -30°C), while, during the ripening period, it needs high temperatures to obtain a good quality of the fruits and a good content of sugars. Because of these conditions, it is recommended not to cultivate and produce blueberries beyond 800 metres above sea level. As to the light, it is important to have a good exposition, that enhancing the flowering, increases also the production.

  • BLACKBERRIES AND MULBERRIES: Both blackberries (botanical name: Rubus fruticosus), black or sometimes red, and mulberries, usually reddish, belong to the same family.
    • BLACKBERRY: Blackberries grow spontaneously all over Europe and it is easy to find them in our woods or in our countrysides, usually along the street borders.  It is a vigorous shrub that, like the raspberry, belongs to the family of Rosaceae. Blackberries spread spontaneously all over Europe and America. More precisely, blackberries are the fruits of bramble, they are dark violet-black, if cultivated, while the wild type of blackberries can be both black and red. The bramble is a vigorous shrub, with typical arching canes that set fruits only after the second year of growth; each year the stump produces suckers that can be up to 5m long and that the following year will produce blackberries. The flowers, grouped in inflorescences, have five white petals. In Italy there are more than 40 species of wild bramble, even though, in the specialized cultivations there are only the thornless varieties of Rubus fruticosus. According to the sprouts there are three kind of cultivars: upright, semi-creeping and creeping plants; the most cultivated cultivars, however are the semi-upright plants.

From a botanical point of view the bramble fruit is a blackberry, formed by drupelets, whose colour can be dark red to black. These fresh fruits usually ripen from July to September.
The blackberry prefers medium mixture soils, with a medium level of organic substances, low in lime scale, with a sub-acid reaction (pH 6-6.5) and well drained; however, this species is more tolerant to pH and lime scale compared to raspberries. In fact, brambles can be cultivated up to 800-900 m above the sea level, better if well exposed to the sun to avoid incomplete ripening. As to the production of blackberries, it is also recommended to avoid plantings of brambles in too windy areas.
Blackberries are rich in vitamin C, vitamin E and fibres; they are also rich in mineral salts such as potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and calcium. Blackberries are slightly laxative and are depurative of the blood, they regulate the perspiration and fight the body weakness. Their syrup is also excellent against tonsil and gum inflammations and against mouth affections in general.

    • MULBERRY. In the past the mulberry tree was cultivated just for its tasty fruit; later, after the end of the first millennium, its importance was increasingly linked to the breeding of silkworms, which where nurtured through its leaves. The mulberry, usually black, was joined by the white mulberry around the half of the XVI century. Up to the past last century, every peasant family had lines of mulberry trees to breed silkworms, and therefore had also a large quantity of mulberries.

Mulberries, compared to blackberries, are whitish or violet-black, according to which mulberry tree they belong to: the white mulberry tree or the black mulberry tree
The fruit is similar to the blackberry and is large, black, bright, acidic and very juicy, while the white mulberry is smaller and less tasty.
Nowadays, after the drop of the silkworm breeding, as the production of silk was replaced by artificial fibres, the mulberry is definitely less available. Yet, in the past the virtues and the beneficial properties of mulberries were already known: Horace recommended the consumption of mulberries as they had a strong energetic power, while Gargilius Martialis taught to extract a powerful medicine from the fruit, which should work against mouth, teeth and artery diseases. Peasant medicine, instead, recommended mulberry’s syrup when it was necessary an anti-inflammatory and astringent action, while the leaves were thought to have beneficial properties against fever. The fruits of white mulberry, smaller and less tasty, were dried to obtain a sweetening flour

  • CURRANT (botanical name: Ribes nigrum, R. rubrum, R. vulgare). It is a fruit bush belonging to the family of Saxifragaceae There are three kind of cultivated currants: white, red and black. The first two, having better organoleptic qualities (acid-sugars ratio), are mainly consumed fresh, while black currant is usually processed because of its too flavoured taste that makes it not much suitable to fresh consumption. The plant is a fruit bush that can become 1-3 m tall, with a good reproduction ability and a superficial rooting system gathered in the first 30 cm of deepness.

The flowers of currant have five petals of varying colours, while the fruit is a berry grouped in clusters of different length according to the species.
The plant of currant adapts to different types of soils, even though a soil rich in humus and well drained gives the best results. The best soil reaction for the development is slightly acid (pH 6.2-6.7). Plants, in poor soils, bear more flavoured fruits, while there is a smaller production. Furthermore, currant is very resistant to winter colds (especially red currant), therefore it can be cultivated also at high altitudes, better if there is a good exposition to light. It is important to pay attention to temperature falls during the blooming to avoid the early falling of fruits. Currant is usually harvested from June to August; the yellow variety of the currant plant is also known as gooseberry, and it is rich in citric acid and pectin, as also in vitamins and mineral salts. Black currant has instead anti-inflammatory and antiallergic properties.
The taste of currant is more acid than sweet, but it is excellent to prepare diuretic infusions: drinks prepared with currant are a panacea against stress and tiredness. Currant is also suitable in case of arthritis and liver disorders. Its sprouts are used to prepare the popular Cassis.

  • GOOSEBERRY (botanical name: Ribes grossularia). It is a bush belonging, like currant, to the family of Saxifragacee: this species of fresh fruit is in fact commonly known also with the name of yellow currant or white currrant. This species is cultivated mainly in families or in small cultivations and gooseberry is usually grown with other small fruits, such as raspberry and blueberry, with the aim to widen the range of offer in the mixed packages.

The plant is a small bush that can become 1.5 m tall with sprouts that have thorns; the shrubs of gooseberry, however are less vigorous than currant shrubs. Fruits, like for currant, are round or oval berries that have a more or less smoothe skin. According to the colour there are gooseberries with green, yellow and red berries. The flesh is crisp, sweet and slightly acid.
The fruits of gooseberry can be consumed fresh or processed.
Gooseberry prefers soils rich in organic substances, with a slightly acid reaction (pH 6-6.5), of a medium mixture and well drained. It is better to avoid too sandy and not very fertile soils, as for the production of wild berries in general. Like the other plants of minor fruits, also the plant of gooseberry is very resistant to winter cold and prefers not to be exposed too much to the sun.
The gooseberry is appreciated for its gaudy fruit, rich in mineral salts, with a good quantity of vitamin C. The harvesting of gooseberry takes place from June to the end of July according to the chosen variety; the harvesting of gooseberry is however hampered by long thorns.
The period of harvesting is not very different among the various varieties of gooseberry; almost all the varieties of gooseberry are sensitive to sulphur (powdered or wettable) and to powdery mildew: these substances, in fact produce a phytotoxic action that causes the stop of vegetation and the falling of leaves. To fight the powdery mildew specific synthetic products are used. As gooseberry is very sensitive to powdery mildew, it is better to choose varieties that are resistant or that tolerate this disease, such as the variety of gooseberry called Green Colossal.

Wild berries in general and part of the plants from which they derive, are largely used in various sectors of the trade: small and coloured, they are mainly used in cuisine to decorate cakes and desserts, to flavour liqueurs, to prepare fruit juices, coktails and yoghurts, but they are also used a lot in herbal medicine and in galenic herbal preparations.
Wild berries are also an excellent expedient to convince children to eat more fruit, thanks to their appearance, their size and to taste that is usually sweet. Finally, they are suitable to everyone and are especially suitable in low-calorie diets thanks to their low content of calories. Attention must be paid only to the consumption of wild strawberries in those peoples particularly sensitive: in fact, if consumed in large quantities, wild strawberries stimulate the body to produce histamine and they could favour allergic reactions with urticaria and itch.

As they are very perishable fruits, it is recommended to consume them immediately after purchasing them to benefit from all their properties, typical of wild berries.

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