Building a Better Berry

Hopefully we’ve all had a few moments of berry bliss already this summer, when you pop a perfect berry into your mouth and are overcome by the sweet flavor of summer. But what goes into developing these moments? For the plant breeder, that berry may have been years in the making.

In an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Food Editor Hsiao-Ching Chou (recently resigned) profiles Patrick Moore, plant breeder at Washington State University who specializes in strawberries and raspberries. What Moore does is not genetic modification, but crossbreeding to develop certain traits in the berries. “I think you can make adequate progress using the traditional method,” he says.

There’s a lot to take into consideration:

Strawberry perfection suffers multiple definitions.

A grower may desire firmness, because the firmer the fruit the easier it is to harvest and the more likely it will survive the conveyor belt. ... Processors may not be concerned about fruit that lacks intense aroma or flavor, because sugar is added during the packing process. ... A chef, on the other hand, may prize strawberries that exude the telltale aroma, possess flesh that is solid crimson, and drip sweetness balanced by enough acidity to keep it from being cloying. … Consumers who demand strawberries in winter usually are satisfied by the plump California berries, which are seasonless and mildly flavored.

Moore weighs all these factors, trying to maximize the features of different berries. It’s a process that takes some time. According to the article, “Inventing strawberries is not a task for the impatient: It takes about 10 research years after a cross is made before a cultivar is released for commercial use. Raspberries take an average of 14 years.”

But that bliss moment, it’s worth waiting for.