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What's Behind Oregon's Marionberry Mania?

Blackberries grow so voraciously in the Pacific Northwest that it's not rare to stumble across rural barns or abandoned homes that have been completely consumed by the thorny vine. Let them grow too close to a window, and they'll break the glass. They're common — easy to forage and hard to get too excited about. At least compared to the marionberry, a type of blackberry that has become an Oregon obsession.

One of the reasons the marionberry is so beloved is because it is entirely a product of Oregon. It's "born and raised" in state, so to speak.

The marionberry, a cross between Chehalem and Olallie blackberries, was bred at Oregon State University as part of a berry-developing partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that dates back to the early 1900s. It's named for Marion County in the Willamette Valley, where most of the field trials took place (not for former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry).

When the berry was introduced in the 1950s, it was widely hailed as the most delicious blackberry commercial cultivar around. Even today, people rave over its tart-yet-sweet flavor — think of a cross between raspberries and blackberries. (Though there is some raspberry in its DNA, the red fruits are more like a genetic great-great grandparent to the marionberry.)

"It's a mythology here," says research geneticist Chad Finn, with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. Marionberries were "pretty special even before the [berry] industry started to promote marions."

In 2009 the state proposed making it the official state berry but withdrew legislation after a Kotata blackberry farmer objected.

Marionberries have done just fine without an official status. Each year during their short July fresh season, the berries are gobbled up by residents.

Within the state you can find marionberry pie, ice cream, liquor, beer, jams ... anything you can put a berry in. Oregon grows 28 to 33 million pounds a year, most of it devoured before the rest of the country ever gets a taste.

"If you go to Provo, Utah, you probably won't find frozen marionberries, but you will if you go to any grocery store, even Safeway, here in Oregon," says Richard Engeman, a regional historian.

"Marion is too soft to ship anywhere fresh," says Finn, adding that even getting it to the farmers market in saleable condition is a challenge. "I'm sure most of the fresh fruit is consumed locally, and I'm sure because of it, there's a local love for it," he explains.

Portland, Ore., has an thriving makers culture, which extends to food and drink in particular. It's not surprising that the love for local products would encompass local ingredients as well, which is why you can find marion blackberry liqueur from Clear Creek distillery, vodka from Wild Roots, and a whiskey from Eastside Distilling.

Rogue Ales has made a marionberry braggot-style beer for the last three years, sourcing the berries from its own farm. President Brett Joyce explains that while the beer is one of the brewer's most complicated — there are a whopping 17 different ingredients used to flavor and make it — the marionberry shines through both in the flavor and the packaging. In fact, the brown glass used to bottle the beer is painted purple.

Yet Engeman proposes another reason for the marionberry's success in Oregon, and it's not just the popularity of eating local.

"We don't have that kind of regional cuisine you can see in parts of the Deep South or the Midwest, where you can even find sub-sub regional styles," he says. "What we do have is distinctive ingredients."

There's nothing like the fiercely Southern pecan pie in the Pacific Northwest, "but you take a peach cobbler and put marionberries in it," he says, "and you have something that resembles a specialty."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tove Danovich