As a kid, WBUR senior arts reporter Amelia Mason remembers snacking on the wild black raspberries growing all over her family's backyard, like a little bear cub. But as an adult, these favorite fruits of her youth are nowhere to be found.
Now, Mason is on the hunt to solve a mystery that's been haunting her for years: why are the black raspberries she treasured in the past so hard to find? Her search for the answer transports us to grocery stores, local farms, foraging expeditions, and even Amelia's own childhood backyard.
Big thanks to John Nourse, Courtney Weber, Russ Cohen, Peter Masters and ice cream queen Gillian Stewart for their contributions to this story.
- Nourse Farm history
- About Cornell bramble expert Courtney Weber
- "The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance" by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- About foraging expert Russ Cohen
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Nora Saks: A little while back, WBUR reporter Amelia Mason took me on a treasure hunt.
The treasure, in this case – berries. But not any old berries – not the common blueberry or the regular old red raspberry – but the black raspberry, a berry more rare and wild than anything found on supermarket shelves.
Although, we are checking the supermarket shelves, just to be sure.
Amelia Mason: So we’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts, outside Savenor’s butcher shop…
Nora: Amelia has selected Savenor’s because the word on the street is that it carries specialty produce, and might have an unusual fruit like black raspberries. But it’s pretty clear when we walk in – this is, first and foremost, a butcher shop.
Nora: There is… meat everywhere (Laughs.)
The shop isn’t very big and it’s easy to catch the eye of a clerk, moving through the aisles of fancy salts and gourmet salamis.
Amelia: I was wondering if I could ask you if you have something in stock.
Employee: Sure! Yeah.
Amelia: So do you sell black raspberries?
Employee: We do not sell black raspberries, no.
Amelia: Do you know what those are?
Nora: We got pretty much the same answer everywhere else we looked.
[Montage of grocery store employees:
"Ah, the only thing I have seen is blackberries, and raspberries, and golden raspberries. I haven’t heard about black raspberries."
“No. No I don’t, I haven’t seen any black raspberries before. No. But I’ve seen some black squirrels!"
"Black raspberries? Well, I guess I thought that was an artificial flavor".]
Nora: It’s not an artificial flavor – but you could be forgiven for thinking it is. Apart from the ice cream, most people haven’t heard of black raspberries. And you’re not going to find them at the supermarket, either.
And this bothers Amelia. Like, really bothers her. For reasons she’ll explain later in this episode.
So, today: the story of one reporter’s quest to find her favorite fruit, in a country where you can buy anything you want, at any time.
When you can get fresh produce all year round and groceries delivered to your doorstep. The one fruit she yearns for is nowhere to be found…
Nora: Welcome to Last Seen, our show about people, places and things that have gone missing.
Together we’re exploring what losing them means, why we keep searching, and whether or not they can – or even should – be found.
I’m Nora Saks. And in our third season, we’re featuring stories from four women. Current and former colleagues who are hellbent on trying to solve mysteries, from the personal to the political. We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.
Today’s episode, from WBUR senior arts reporter Amelia Mason: Berried Treasure.
Amelia: OK, so, what are black raspberries?: If you guessed that they are raspberries, that are black in color, you would be correct. And they taste similar to red raspberries, maybe a little sweeter. I don’t know how to say it other than that they actually taste darker; less bright. Earthy.
I have to be honest, this thing with black raspberries: it’s personal. It starts in my childhood, in a suburb in Massachusetts, which is the closest I’ve ever come to living in the country. Every July, the patch of black raspberries that lined the edge of our backyard exploded with fruit.
Here’s how my dad remembers it.
Peter Masters: So when you were a little girl, we lived in Melrose. We also lived on a hill.
Amelia: That's true.
Peter: And the back of the backyard faced a very steep hill, a very steep cliff. So, we put up a fence to keep you from running off it when you're playing out in the backyard. And then we had the space behind the fence that we couldn't use. So we said, let's plant raspberries.
Amelia: For some reason the story I remember is that you planted the raspberries because delinquent teens were like climbing, like scaling the cliff.
Peter: It was that too…
Amelia: My dad planted six bushes each of red and black raspberries, but within a few years, the black raspberries took over. They grew into a dense thicket on the edge of our property, keeping marauding bands of teenagers out and me from tumbling down the cliff. When I got a little older, my friends and I would spend hours picking berries every day in the summer. The plants were really thorny, and you had to kind of slither your way through the brambles to reach the fruit without getting scratched.
Peter: It was like sending out bear cubs to fatten themselves for the winter. You know you guys would go out there and you’d play and you’d eat berries, all morning, and then we wouldn’t have to feed you lunch!
Amelia: I remember this time through a haze of warm nostalgia: picking raspberries all day – well, eating them, mostly. But mostly what I remember is the sheer bounty of them: they grew like weeds.
So when I grew up, I was always a little confounded that you could never find black raspberries in the grocery store. Red raspberries: yes. Blackberries: always. But black raspberries are distinct from either of these. They taste different. And also, the aforementioned nostalgia.
And then I noticed something strange: black raspberry ice cream. At some point, it became like a standard flavor at ice cream shops in New England, next to chocolate and vanilla and mint chip. But, still no actual berries. It was like stepping out your door into a downpour, only to look up and find no cloud in the sky.
That’s the point where the “black raspberry problem,” as I’ll call it, really started to bug me. There was the ice cream thing, for one. And then there was the fact that the internet yielded nothing. Maybe I’m just used to getting answers. It was the principle of the thing: there must be a reason. And it must be possible to find it.
Which brings me to our present task: find the reason for this black raspberry scarcity, using the powers of journalism.
(Car door slam.)
To begin, we have to talk to the guy who started it all: one Peter Masters, my dad.
And let me tell you – he’s such a dad. He’s the guy I call for financial advice, or if I’m buying a car, or if I need someone to explain inflation, again. To be honest, he’s a know-it-all. But that’s exactly the kind of person you want to talk to when you need someone to theorize wildly about why I, personally, can never find black raspberries at the grocery store, for a podcast.
Amelia: Can you describe where we are and where we’re going right now?
Peter: OK, so we’re in front of the house, which is on top of, really on top of Granite hill in west Gloucester and um, we’re walking down the driveway.
Amelia: These days, my dad lives in a different house, up on a hill in the woods.
He leads me down the driveway and to show me where he recently planted a new crop of raspberries.
Peter: And here's the black raspberry.
Amelia: This looks familiar.
Peter: And yeah. So they grow in a different, a different way. They produce these long canes. I mean, some of the canes are six feet high and are drooping.
My dad’s only recently started growing raspberries again, so there isn’t much yield this summer. But we rustle around and manage to find a few ripe berries.
Peter: There's one.
Amelia: (Chews.) Oh yeah. Oh man.
Peter: It's only one. Right.
Amelia: Yeah. I love how these taste. It’s pretty different though. How would you describe the flavor?
Peter: It's the red raspberries have a sharper flavor, and I don't mean sour, I mean more pungent in the sense that the really good red raspberry tastes like, oh my God, this is some amazing fruit I've never tasted before. Whereas to me, black raspberries taste sort of more like a generic sweet fruit.
Amelia: “A generic sweet fruit.” Only a parent can be so casually undermining.
Peter: I also don't think they keep as well.
Amelia: I don't know. Have you ever bought red raspberries from the grocery store? They get moldy in like a day.
Dad: They do.
Amelia: We do agree on one thing, which is that black raspberries seem to have a lot of seeds. Maybe that’s why they aren’t more popular. But my dad has another theory.
Peter: Yeah, I'm guessing that they also seem smaller.
Amelia: They are smaller.
Peter: OK, which means it's more work picking them.
Amelia: OK, that’s a good point – if the berries are smaller, it’ll take longer to pick enough to fill, say a quart, or a pint, or whatever.
But it still doesn’t answer my most pressing question.
Amelia: Why do you think you can find black raspberry flavored ice cream so easily?
Peter: Well, that would go with the idea that they're that they don't travel well.
Amelia: Basically, he thinks, if black raspberries don’t travel well, maybe growers freeze them. You couldn’t eat them fresh, but you could make ice cream with them. This is, annoyingly, actually a pretty good guess.
Peter: Anyway, that’s the story with the black raspberries, you can also see…
Amelia: OK, let’s review: My dad thinks that flavor could be why black raspberries aren’t more popular – blasphemy, in my opinion. But he has a few ideas I think could be right: the difficulty of cultivating the thick brambles, the low yield, the delicate, quick-to-mold berries themselves.
I need to find an expert to test these theories on, so I reach out to the center for agriculture, food and the environment at UMass, and they put me in touch with their bramble expert. Yes, that’s a thing – the perfect thing, in fact! At least I think so.
I email the bramble expert asking for an interview. She does not treat my query with much urgency – shocking – and after a couple days, offers this exasperating explanation. “Black raspberries,” she writes, “are not as well known, therefore the market is smaller and fewer are grown.”
It’s a little insulting, this explanation, like saying the ground is wet because it’s raining. When weather is one of the great unpredictable forces on earth.
A little Googling later – or what I like to call “investigative journalism” – and I locate a farm in Westborough, Massachusetts, called Nourse Farm, that has pick your own black raspberries. Nourse Farm says on its website that it’s 300 years old and was founded by descendents of one of the victims in the Salem Witch Trials. Come for the black raspberries, stay for the extremely Massachusetts trivia…
Nourse Farm answering machine: (Rings.) You’ve reached the nourse farm. It’s Thursday, July 15th, we have a lot of berry picking going on now and the next few days…
Amelia: Nourse Farm does have a phone; they do not answer it. I call a few times, but I’m never able to set up a time to speak with a farmer.
So one day I and a couple friends make the hour-long drive out to Westborough.
(Car door slams.)
It’s a sunny day, and Nourse Farm is an idyllic setting, so lushly green it looks like something out of a movie. We approach a small red building, where a teen is handing out buckets to collect berries in. My friend Jack asks if they have black raspberries to pick.
Nourse Farm employee: So the black raspberries have been picked out.
Amelia and friends: No!
Nourse Farm employee: But they will grow back and…
Amelia: The black raspberries, he tells us, have all been picked. But if we want to talk to someone who knows all about them – the farm’s owner, John Nourse, is our guy. He’ll be back soon for lunch.
So I send my friends off to cavort in the blueberry bushes and wait for John Nourse to arrive.
At long last John Nourse emerges from the fields. He wears a beige baseball cap over short gray hair, and a shirt that says “Westborough Mass Townie.”
Amelia: Thanks for being willing to chat with me. Do you have a few minutes?
John Nourse: Yeah, sure.
Amelia: John tells me he’s been running the farm for 50 years, after taking it over from his dad. John’s the one who introduced berries to the family business.
John: And so we have a lot of berries. And that's, that's my specialty. And we get a lot, of a lot of income per acre from berries.
Amelia: John does not seem nearly as disturbed as I am by the lack of black raspberries in supermarkets, but he is nothing if not polite. He listens attentively as I launch into my black raspberry monologue.
My family had a whole bunch of raspberry bushes growing. My dad planted a few when we moved in and there was like, some red red raspberry bushes and some black raspberry bushes. And the black raspberries completely took over, you don’t but you can't really find them anywhere.
John agrees that this is a bit of a head scratcher. He says the black raspberries are really popular. Especially the ice cream.
John: But the thing about black raspberries is the flavor. Our most popular ice cream is black raspberry ice cream. It lends so well to making things with it. Whereas I've had red raspberry ice cream, not the same at all.
Amelia: According to John, the main problem with growing black raspberries is...
John: They're harder to deal with, whether ya – because we have to go through and prune them, train you know, train them, put them on the trellis. They’re thorny! Whereas the thorns have been bred out of the red raspberry, much easier to deal with.
Amelia: In my mind, like if someone decided they wanted to breed black raspberries that were bigger, less thorny, less seedy, maybe they could do it. But no one has.
John: The right you know, who knows. It could be somebody working on that, though.
Amelia: It doesn’t occur to me until John says it: that maybe, probably, there’s already someone trying to create a commercially viable black raspberry. Maybe they’ve been on the case all along. Maybe black raspberries haven’t been ignored, but just the opposite. Maybe they’re just wilder, tougher than other berries. Harder to tame.
When we come back: I find the guy who’s trying to tame them.
Courtney Weber: OK, I got it set up its recording based on little squiggling going across there. It's picking me up fine, so.
Amelia: Courtney Weber is a Cornell horticulture professor who works at the university’s agricultural experiment station in Geneva, New York.
Courtney: My research and extension area is berry breeding and genetics.
Amelia: Translation: berry breeding is basically Weber’s whole job. And unlike my bramble expert, he’s more than happy to talk to me about it. Or, listen to me talk about it…
Amelia: …and then we’d go crazy picking them, and then I grew up and I was like, hmm, why can’t I find these in stores, and I sorta would think about it.
I run through the whole story of the berries, and how I’ve been trying to figure out why I can’t find them …
And I sort of just couldn't come up with any good reason. But there were a few ideas that have come up in the course of this story that people have sort of suggested as possible reasons.
So, I lay out the reasons: the small size; the thorns; the seeds; how the berries don’t seem to keep well; and my dad’s theory that people just don’t like the taste. By this time, I’ve come up with another new theory.
So finally, I thought maybe it's just that people think or like people in the business think there's only room for one black berry, one black colored berry. And it's a BlackBerry and it's too confusing to try to sell people. And so that sounds similar, but is different.
Weber listens carefully, taking notes. When I’ve finished, he says:
Courtney: So, most of those reasons are true, in some part. The least is the flavor. Most people, when they actually are presented with black raspberries versus red raspberries, they prefer the black ones.
Amelia: Take that Dad! There is one thing I’ve been wrong about, and that’s the seediness of black raspberries. Weber says this is an illusion.
Courtney: Because they're small berries, the flesh to seed ratio is less and it feels seedy.
Amelia: The flesh to seed ratio! Of course. I ran this one by my dad. He took issue with it.
Peter: That's a semantic argument, which I don't buy … I'm, well, what he said is they're not seedier, but they're smaller. So but by seed theory, you care about seeds per per pound or seeds per cubic inch or not seeds per berry? Yes. There's not more seeds in one berry, but the berries are smaller, so there's more seeds when you put them in a handful in your mouth. Right?
Amelia: OK, dad.
Weber does clear up that burning question: why is it so much easier to find black raspberry ice cream than the berries themselves?
He says it all goes back to those small berries and thorny plants. Black raspberries have such low yield and are so hard to work with that anyone hoping to grow them on a large scale can’t afford to have them picked by hand. Instead, they drive machine harvesters over the rows of berries, shaking the ripe ones free.
Courtney: A machine harvested raspberry can't really be used for fresh market sales because they get a little bit bruised in the process and they just don't store well.
Amelia: Instead, they are frozen. And what can you do with frozen raspberries? Make ice cream!
There’s one more big problem with black raspberries that Weber is trying to solve, and that’s a short growing season.
Courtney: You have big gaps in the market. And marketers hate that. They want to have product all the time.
Amelia: Weber explains that a black raspberry cane does not produce fruit in its first year. Instead, it lives through one winter season, bears fruit, and then dies. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. But the point is that black raspberries can only be grown in climates that have winters. If Weber can breed a variety that bears fruit in its first season, then the berries could be grown in warm climates, all year round. These are sometimes called ever-bearing plants – and it’s a trait that berry breeders cultivated in red raspberries back in the 1960s.
Courtney: So we just started working with that trait in recent years in black raspberry.
Amelia: Weber wants to cultivate black raspberry plants that have bigger berries and higher yield, and are thornless and ever-bearing like the red raspberries on the market.
But the process is slow. And Weber says – it’s particularly slow with black raspberries, because they don’t have much genetic diversity.
Basically all that means is, you can grow a lot of black raspberry plants, and they’ll all be pretty uniform. You rarely find random new traits for berry breeders to cultivate. Scientists think that long ago, an ice age might have killed off a lot of black raspberries, creating a kind of genetic bottleneck, though no one really knows for sure.
But it might help explain why black raspberries are native only to certain parts of North America – whereas red raspberries go back centuries across North America and Eurasia.
Courtney: There are mentions of the red raspberries that in ancient texts, the plant is used for multiple reasons. The leaf can be used for teas. People were using them for medicinal purposes, for fruit.
Amelia: The prevalence of red raspberries in Europe makes me wonder if there’s a kind of Eurocentric bias towards red raspberries in North America today – if European settlers were driving berry cultivation in North America, were they just more interested in growing red raspberries because that’s what they knew? Weber says, it’s possible.
Courtney: People generally are a little afraid of trying new things, either because they don't recognize it and they're, you know, they’re worried it might make them sick or they just prefer the flavor of what they're familiar with.
Amelia: That could help explain why people might prefer red raspberries, and why they might confuse black raspberries with blackberries. But Weber believes this “marketing problem,” as he calls it, is possible to overcome.
Courtney: If you have a good product, I think that could easily be overcome, they might have to come up with a new name for it…
Amelia: And so, Weber is certain there will be a market for the black raspberries he hopes to create: thornless, ever-bearing, tameable.
But it could come at a cost. Weber says, a mass marketed black raspberry will be easier to cultivate, harvest and store. And it’ll taste good. But it won’t taste the same as a fresh, wild black raspberry right off the cane.
Courtney: It's just the realities of modern agriculture. If you want the premium tasting raspberries, you better plant a bush in your backyard. That's just the reality of getting the best tasting. You've got to pick it yourself.
Amelia: I know, right? After all that searching, and Googling, and hypothesizing, I’m kind of back where I started. The guy whose whole job is to make a mass-marketable black raspberry tells me I’m better off picking them myself.
Which, by the way, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Amelia: How are you?
Russ Cohen: I’m good.
Amelia: On a summer day I drive to the Cox Reservation in Essex, Massachusetts, a bucolic nature preserve on a hill that slopes towards a marsh. I’m here to meet a local forager named Russ Cohen.
Russ: So you've got the tidal creeks and the salt marsh grasses and the islands and stuff like that. So it's quite scenic.
Amelia: Cohen is completely at home here. He talks about nature in warm, endearing terms. Like, we’re not foraging – we’re “nibbling on the landscape.”
Russ: Knowing what you can nibble on just enriches all the time you spend outdoors.
Amelia: On this hot July day, we’re hoping to find some black raspberries. But there’s been a brutal drought all summer, and he’s not optimistic. Sure enough, when we spot a thicket of black raspberry canes, the berries are all dried up.
Russ: That's what we're dealing with this year. They're just they're still here, but they're all shriveled and there's not much going on.
Amelia: Cohen isn’t too bothered by this – it seems like part of the deal.
Russ: A good thing to remember when you're foraging is, you know, you might be going out to look for a particular thing and you might have trouble finding that. But there's something else there that is in abundance, like this field garlic.
Amelia: I think he’s just trying to make me feel better. I mean, garlic – come on.
Cohen bounds through the salt marsh, pointing out plants that, later in the summer, or in the fall, will yield beach plums, or black cherries, or a fuzzy berry I could make into tea.
He raves about something called a shagbark hickory nut, though those won’t be ready to pick until September. Somehow, we seem to have found the one week in the whole year when nothing is actually ripe. But Cohen is in his element.
Russ: You know, foraging is one of the last activities out there that does not involve a financial transaction of any kind. It's just you nibbling on the wild plants.
Amelia: I mean, who doesn’t love free stuff. Though, the point he’s making is a little deeper than that. He’s saying, there’s value in something that hasn’t been commodified.
Despite the complete lack of black raspberries on this nature preserve, I do like what Cohen is saying. It's an idea that is explored in an essay he shared with me, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist and writer who applies indigenous ways of thinking to the study of science and nature.
I tried to get an interview with Kimmerer, but apparently she’s booked through mid-2023 – a popular lady! I did find a recording of her reading from the essay “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance” in Emergence Magazine.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: This abundance of berries feels like a pure gift from the land. I have not earned, paid for, nor labored for them. There is no mathematics of worthiness that reckons I deserve them in any way. And yet here they are.
Amelia: Kimmerer begins the essay with a memory of picking serviceberries – another berry that grows wild in the Northeast and that you won’t find at supermarkets.
Kimmerer connects the act of foraging to gift economies of indigenous cultures – economies where people don’t trade or sell goods, but share when they have more than enough, and receive from their neighbors in turn.
@homegrown_handgathered: So ignore my horrible bedhead, and I’ll tell you why dandelions are one of my absolute favorite spring things to forage…
Amelia: Foraging is making a bit of a comeback. It’s very big on TikTok these days.
I think it’s easy to dismiss something like foraging as just a trend or a snobby activity for foodies and restaurateurs.
But Kimmerer frames it as a small, personal act of resistance to the injuries of late capitalism, which hasn’t exactly been great for, say, the earth. Or the migrant laborers who pick the vast majority of the berries we buy at the grocery store. Foraging for food, sharing it with friends – it’s a way of opting out of these systems, and connecting with other people. I feel that.
I probably shouldn’t keep you in suspense any longer: About a week after my visit to Nourse Farm, I return, and manage to pick about a pint of black raspberries. They’d been baking in the sun, and getting mushy – but I got ‘em. Finally.
What to do with a pint of slightly fermented black raspberries? I’m not sure there’s anything else to do, but make black raspberry ice cream.
(Immersion blender sound.)
I only know one person who regularly makes her own ice cream, and that’s my friend Gillian. So I head over to her apartment, with my pint of mushy berries, and a wire sieve, which Gillian requested. When I get there, I find out Gillian’s never actually tasted black raspberries before.
Gillian: Yeah yeah, just eat it. (Chews.)
Amelia: Gillian chews thoughtfully while I await her verdict.
Gillian: I was talking to someone about this the other day, and I feel like “brown” is sort of a flavor, in a good way. Like soy sauce. It’s sort of umami and sort of complex and slightly deeper.
Amelia: Gillian’s a pro in the kitchen, so she basically just does a cooking show while I watch.
Gillian: Yeah, so I’m heating up the milk and the cream and some of the sugar.
We’re making a custard based ice cream.
Amelia: We have fun.
Gillian: Amelia this is genius.
Amelia: I mean… all I did was give you a recipe and make you make it. (Laughs.)
When the custard is finished, Gillian pops it into the fridge to cool. The ice cream machine itself isn’t much to look at: it’s basically a round tub with a crank on top.
We pour the custard inside and take turns cranking it while it slowly freezes.
This prevents ice crystals from forming, and makes the ice cream smooth and airy.
Then – the moment of truth.
Amelia: That’s very good.
Amelia: And it’s a little bit tart still. I like that it’s not too sweet. I had this idea that it’d go well with chocolate.
(Snaps chocolate bar.)
Listening back, I’m struck by how long the whole process took. First I had to find a farm that sold black raspberries; then I had to go there, twice, and pick the berries myself. It was hard to schedule time with Gillian to actually make the ice cream: it ended up taking a few hours spread out over two days.
What you don’t hear is the long drive out to the farm with my friends, or the spontaneous trip to an art museum we took afterwards. What a time-consuming hassle it all could have been – and instead, we got an unexpectedly full and satisfying day.
As for black raspberries? Apparently they’re as hard to grow as they are to find. They’re stubborn and thorny and wild. And now, I’m not sure how eager I am to see them tamed.
And it will take years, if not decades. I think we can wait.
Gillian: It really does look like cauliflower beet soup. (Laughs.)
Amelia: Way to sell it.
Gillian: In a good way! It’s like borscht!
Nora Saks: This episode of Last Seen was reported and written by Amelia Mason.
It was produced by Amelia and myself, Nora Saks.
Jeb Sharp is our story editor.
Mix, sound design and original music by Paul Vaitkus.
Production help from my WBUR Podcasts teammates: Emily Jankowski, Matt Reed, Dean Russell, Amory Sivertson, Megan Cattel, Quincy Walters, and Grace Tatter.
Our digital producer is Megan Cattel.
Ben Brock Johnson is our executive producer.
Big thanks to John Nourse, Courtney Weber, Russ Cohen, Peter Masters and ice cream queen Gillian Stewart for their contributions to this story.
You can find all of our stories and show notes at WBUR.org slash Last Seen. And follow us on Twitter: @LastSeenPodcast
And you can always pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things that have gone missing. Drop us a line at email@example.com
Next week, we’re going to Cambridge’s Lost Confectioners Row. And it’s gonna be sweet.
Thanks for listening.