The Missouri Dewberry Project
The Missouri Dewberry Project
Photo Credit: Ivar Leidus from Wikipedia

The Missouri Dewberry Project

by Jeffery Goss of Hurley, MO

There is currently a project in the beginning stages, to evaluate the cultivars and wild selections of dewberries to determine which are best suited to production in southern Missouri, especially in areas considered marginal for commercial true blackberry farming. We also plan to collect a body of agronomic, taxonomic, and phenological data regarding this specialty crop. Old newspaper reports from Douglas and Ozark counties tell of local families canning large amounts of them in the early 20th century, but for various reasons their cultivation has declined. The following is the submitted text of a research grant proposal from 2022 about it.

PROJECT PURPOSE

There is a small fruit crop which, though native to Missouri and having a long history of small-scale cultivation, is seldom grown commercially today. The dewberry, closely related to raspberries and blackberries, is a distinct type of fruiting bramble which is suited to many environments other than the “ideal” blackberry or raspberry habitats, and are especially valuable in hilly regions. For several decades it was out of fashion even to acknowledge that such a crop as dewberries existed, as they were subsumed under “southeastern trailing blackberries.” Today, however, specialty crop statistics at least count growers of “blackberries and dewberries” per state, though they do not separate the two, making it impossible to know exactly how many dewberry producers are in each state.

“Dewberries” in the context of this project refers primarily to the species historically known as Rubus villosus, which is now commonly divided into the three species R. flagellaris, R. invisus and R. trivialis (syn. enslenii); this group also comprises the subspecies roribaccus (e.g. ‘Lucretia’), geophilus (e.g. ‘Austin’), and almus (e.g. ‘Foster Thornless’), whose attachments to the various newly divided species are still a matter of debate. Our purview of dewberries secondarily includes the species R. mirus, hispidus, canadensis, and dumetorum as they relate to (and potentially hybridize with) this group delineated above. The scope of the present project does not anticipate any work with the so-called Pacific dewberry (R. ursinus) or its hybrids, which are widely commercially cultivated in Oregon.

Dewberries are especially well suited to the Ozarks, both agronomically and economically. The cultivar ‘Lucretia’, often said to originate in North Carolina, was actually (as per some sources) selected from West Virginia during the Civil War era, but in any case it has been grown successfully in southern Appalachia for over a century, in climates and soils that closely mirror those of southern Missouri. The Arkansas Ozarks also historically produced dewberries in the early 20th century and are still often found in old home gardens there. Moreover, the wild subspecies or species known as upland dewberry is native to the Ozark uplift, and although it is not noted for high productivity, its tolerance to shade and rocky soils make it a desirable parent stock for any new dewberry crosses, as well as a population from which potentially to select natural cultivars (so-called “nativars”) for outstanding traits such as thornlessness or early bearing.

Research on existing cultivars as well as selecting new ones is likely to make dewberry cultivation a recognized and practical specialty crop option for southern and central Missouri, and perhaps even to become a signature product of the region. In addition to the fresh-marketed and preserved fruit, the dewberry has also been used as a source of tea (leaves), wine, and vinegar.

Dewberries have likely been overlooked commercially due to the higher yield potential of upright blackberries and raspberries in fertile, level ground. In hilly and “marginal” locations, however, dewberries may thrive and outperform blackberries. Furthermore, the vine’s low and rambling habit may actually be an asset to small and diversified operations where it can be trained upon fences, rock walls, and other existing infrastructural sites rather than requiring dedicated open acreage which could be utilized in other ways. Dewberry can be pollinated by a variety of native pollinators as well as by honeybees, and are an excellent crop to integrate with a beekeeping venture on the farm.

Although some sources drawing on experiences with southern trivialis-type cultivars will make the assertion that dewberries are not reliably winter hardy in Missouri, this is patently incorrect with regards to northern types. This can be verified as simply as referring to the county-by-county distribution of wild R. flagellaris in the state. Dewberries were heavily used for food and medicine by Native Americans and early white settlers. The role of this crop was very significant for the Osage, Cherokee and other tribes, to an extent that is often overlooked today. Dewberries are called okasheka in the Osage language, and were both cultivated and foraged from the wild by many American Indian cultures in Missouri and elsewhere, for millennia. In some areas their use by humans seems to have even exceeded that of blackberry and raspberry.

Furthermore, the ancient economic importance of dewberries is underscored by the discovery of the fruit and plant residues in large numbers at sites of archaeological significance in Missouri(1). Although it is possible that most of this material is the result of wild collection rather than actual cultivation by Native Americans of the time periods studied, it is nevertheless highly probable that much of the northern and western extent of R. flagellaris’ range in the state is the result of human introduction. Current trends in climate change may eventually lead to conditions in Missouri that more closely mirror those of the warmer medieval (i.e. Mississippian) period; therefore a thorough assessment and understanding of the key domesticated and wild plants that allowed human societies to survive and thrive at that time and place may be important to the agriculture of a hotter and more unpredictable future.

(1) The Raytown excavations in particular, dated AD 800-1000 and revealing a Siouan habitation of the area, showed signs of heavy dewberry use and possible cultivation.

Currently the vast majority of agronomic and genetic research in the genus Rubus involves upright end semi-trailing blackberries. This is especially true in Missouri and the several adjoining states, particularly Arkansas and Oklahoma, where the upright cultivars are by far the most common among commercial growers. Red raspberries have also been well researched, though primarily in states further north and east. Dewberries have been generally overlooked in published research, and although this may partly owe to the assumption that they are to be subsumed under blackberries, the vast majority of such studies have been done on true (upright) species and cultivars. Although this information is helpful to dewberry growers, there are many specifics that differ between the two groups by virtue of their contrasting growth habit, developmental schedule (phenology), and other factors. For example, dewberry canes are typically trained in such a way that their flowing parts are closer to the ground, and therefore it is less likely that a late spring freeze will affect them even if it is a so-called “blackberry winter” (a freeze which damages the blossoms of upright blackberry canes).

Although it will take many years for the full horticultural potential of dewberries to be realized in a way comparable to that of blackberries and red raspberries, there are already domesticated cultivars as well as wild selections that can be put into production, and as previously discussed, they are particularly suited to mixed and small-scale operations. The immediate objectives of this project, therefore, are as follows:

  1. To obtain various selections of dewberries and conduct a comparative trial of them at multiple locations in the Ozark region of Missouri;
  2. To determine which existing cultivars of tame (thornless and near-thornless) dewberries, as well as which subspecies and local selections of wild native dewberries, hold the highest potential for yield and reliability (including esp. winter survival) in the Ozark bioregion, and particularly for diversified and/or organic farm operations;
  3. To analyze the taxonomic relationships between the various named dewberry strains and cultivars, thereby laying a foundation of knowledge to inform future plant-breeding work;
  4. To obtain quantities of dewberry seeds, which will be made available to growers and institutions for the purpose of propagation and the possible selection of new cultivars.

BENEFICIARIES

The specialty crop beneficiaries of this project are (a) fresh-market and value-added fruit and vegetable growers who have access to land spaces or unused area suitable to a rambling vine crop, and (b) nursery operators who sell to the broader gardening public as well as to professional market gardeners. By achieving the objectives delineated above, this project aims to provide sufficient cultural, agronomic, and economic information to allow new growers to begin cultivating dewberries, and to encourage existing specialty-crop growers to diversify by adding the dewberry to their operations.

2023 UPDATE

Although the state agricultural grant was not funded, the project generated significant interest among private small farmers and market growers. The search is still on for cultivars once widely grown but no longer widely commercially available, such as ‘Foster Thornless.’ Shade-tolerant specimens have also been found in more wooded areas and may prove to be members of the rare upland subspecies.

Anyone with interest in following the project, or with old or new cultivars or selections to be tried out, can write to Ozark Heritage Botanicals, PO Box 312, Hurley, MO 65675.