Skip to main content

The Marionberry: Origin Story of This Pacific Northwest Gem

Christophe Vaille is a professional writer, editor, and historian.

Marionberry cake

Marionberry cake

If you’re like many of us in the Pacific Northwest, summertime and marionberries go hand-in-hand. From early July through August, marionberries are harvested and begin appearing in the produce section of grocery stores, pies, and a plethora of other food and drink items. But did you know that this scrumptious berry did not even exist until the 1940s? Had you walked into a local diner in the 1920s or 1930s and asked for a slice of marionberry pie, you would have been met with puzzled looks.

the-marionberry

Origin of the Marionberry

While an urban myth circulates that the marionberry was named for the American politician, Mayor Marion Barry of the District of Columbia (1979–91, 1995–99), the true origin of this delectable berry traces back to the 1940s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University collaborated to create a blackberry hybrid like no other. These two organizations have long worked together cross-breeding berries in an effort to produce varieties with greater flavor, fragrancy, and higher yields. In the marionberry, this collaboration struck pure gold.

the-marionberry

Partnership Between USDA and Oregon State

It was USDA horticulturist George F. Waldo with the agency’s station in Corvallis, Oregon, and horticulturists from Oregon State University who were responsible for bringing us some of Oregon's signature berries. One of these resulted in the Hood Strawberry—the favored variety of Oregon berry farmers and local consumers alike. The other berry creation was the marionberry. This partnership between USDA berry breeders and OSU horticulturists is unique—a true one-of-a-kind collaboration that has spanned over a century and exists nowhere else in the world.

George F. Waldo

George F. Waldo

Chad Finn, a USDA-ARS research geneticist who currently occupies Waldo’s previous position in Corvallis, describes Waldo’s pioneering work as, “classical plant breeding,” a process that is “always a combination of art and science.” Finn’s admiration runs deep. “One of the things that I think is lost, really, is that he created a whole crop that never existed before,” Finn explained. “That’s remarkable. We would be dead in the water without him or somebody like him.” Since much of the early testing for this new berry creation was done in Oregon's Marion County, it was called the “marionberry.”

the-marionberry

Chehalem and Ollalieberry Cross

So, what exactly is a marionberry? It's a cross between a Chehalem blackberry (a berry with native blackberry, loganberry, and raspberry in its genetics) with an ollalieberry (another blackberry crossbreed). All that one needs to know, though, is that it is absolutely delicious! Linda Strand of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission describes the marionberry as “sweeter than most other berries, but not overly so.” She also shared that “in blind taste tests around the country, people always prefer it. It’s our gold standard in the industry.”

the-marionberry

Are They Seedless?

Marionberries are often marketed as being seedless, but in fact a seedless berry is actually impossible. Even though one detects no seeds while eating a marionberry, there are indeed extremely flat thin seeds in the berries that are coated with a gelatinous material that renders them undetectable on the tongue.

the-marionberry

"Cabernet of Blackberries"

According to Bernadine Strik, an Oregon State University professor and leader of the university’s berry research program, “Oregon continues to be known as the premier blackberry growing region in the world,” she proclaims. And of all types of blackberries grown in Oregon, the marionberry still reigns supreme and is called by some the “Cabernet of blackberries.” The marionberry accounts for approximately 25% of the state’s berry production which is an impressive accomplishment for a variety that was developed over 50 years ago and must continually compete with newer rivals bred to topple the marionberry from its throne.

the-marionberry

Efforts to Make It the Oregon State Berry

So popular was the marionberry that in 2009 an effort was made to make it the official state berry. Many legislators supported the initiative, but ultimately the proposal was abandoned when a prominent berry producer insisted that focus on a specific berry variety might damage the sales of others. And while the marionberry didn’t achieve official status as the state berry, the Pacific Northwest, and Oregon in particular, still maintain supremacy in the production of this highly-prized berry. Marionberry lovers living beyond the reach of fresh marionberries can sometimes find them among the frozen berries.

the-marionberry

Cultivation and Harvest

Not only does the Willamette Valley’s cool, mild winters and warm temperate summers create the ideal climate for berries to thrive in, but decades of marionberry cultivation have resulted in the development of harvesting techniques specifically designed for obtaining the optimal yield. Marionberries are delicate by nature, and in order to maintain consistent flavor and texture—particularly for processed products—specialized technology is employed to ensure only ripe berries are harvested (unlike other berry types which are harvested in large batches without such care). During the compressed four-week season that commences with Independence Day, marionberries are picked every few days with finely calibrated row machines that vibrate at designated frequencies causing only the ripe berries to detach themselves from the plants for collection.

the-marionberry

It is this combination of ideal climate combined with specialized harvesting technology that has limited the production of marionberries to the Pacific Northwest. Other areas of the country lack either one or both of these critical elements which are indeed necessary for successful commercial production of marionberries. And while marionberries are still a wildly popular treasure of summer, the cultivation of these marvels of the berry world pose a number of challenges. Since marionberries are thorny, hand-picking is difficult (requiring specialized machinery as noted above), and they are less tolerant to colder temperatures than other varieties, which can affect variances in production volume. These are among the challenges horticulturists are striving to solve through selective breeding and experimentation.

the-marionberry

Marionberries vs. Blackberries: What's the Difference?

If you’re questioning the difference between marionberries and blackberries, here’s a simple rule of thumb: Not all blackberries are marionberries, but all marionberries are a type of blackberry. Visually, marionberries are more oblong; they also tend to be sweeter and juicier than blackberries, and in general, a bit firmer as well.

the-marionberry

So, the next time you’re enjoying a slice of marionberry pie or, perhaps, marionberry ice cream on a warm summer day, remember George F. Waldo and the many hard-working horticulturists at the USDA and Oregon State University who over the years have created this delectable Oregon original, and are still striving to develop new delicious berries for future generations.

the-marionberry

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.