If you've never heard of this blackberry hybrid, you probably haven't spent time in the Pacific Northwest in July and August. Offerings of marionberry shakes, pies, tarts, ice creams, sorbets, salads, and more are ubiquitous on menus across the state of Oregon.
Baskets of the shiny blue-black berries cover tables at farmers markets. Smart shoppers order flats of them to freeze and keep them past the all-too-brief season. Marionberry season is serious business in the Pacific Northwest.
What Are Marionberries?
These are medium-sized blackberries that range in color from very dark red to true black, grown exclusively in Oregon, where it is prized above other blackberries. They are always labeled as marionberries or their more formal name, Marion blackberries. (Sometimes you might also see it expressed as marion berry.)
The marionberry was developed at Oregon State University in 1945 by crossing a Chehalem blackberry (a berry with native blackberry, loganberry, and raspberry in its background) with an olallieberry (itself a blackberry cross) and named after Marion County in Oregon. They were first brought to market in 1956. Marionberries are still regarded by berry breeders as the blackberry to beat.
Marionberries vs. Blackberries
It's easy to confuse these two berries. But here are a few guidelines. Not all blackberries are marionberries, but all marionberries are a type of blackberry. They differ, however, in shape, as marionberries are more oblong, and tend to be sweeter and juicier. Also, they're only grown in Oregon, whereas blackberries are available across North America commercially and from local farms in areas where berries can easily grow. They also tend to be a bit more firm than blackberries.
How to Use Marionberries
When it's summertime, the sky is the limit as far as eating and using these berries. Any recipe that calls for a blackberry can use a marionberry instead. Eat them out of hand. Put them in a pie, a cobbler, or scone. Turn them into jam, jelly, or churn them into frozen confections such as ice cream, sorbet, or gelato. Muddle them into mixed drinks such as a sidecar or whip them into a smoothie.
What Do They Taste Like?
The marionberry is both the king and queen of blackberries. Intensely aromatic, it has a complex and rich earthy flavor that skirts that edge of bitterness found in many blackberries. It is sometimes referred to as the cabernet sauvignon of the berry world. It is sweeter and juicier than the evergreen blackberries found in wild brambles up and down the West Coast, and although it's got some raspberry in its RNA (plant DNA), it's definitely not as sweet.
Wherever you'd use a berry in a recipe, especially blackberries, you can assign the task to a marionberry. They're incredibly versatile, even beyond the typical jam, cake, or ice cream assignment. Turn them into wine, add them to a cocktail, or cook them down with red wine to sauce chicken or beef.
Where to Buy Marionberries
Marionberries, especially the darker colored ones, are beautifully glossy. Look for bright, plump berries without blemishes, mold, or sogginess if you're lucky enough to find fresh marionberries for sale. They are in season from mid-July to mid-August. Frozen marionberries are available year-round and work well in baked goods such as a blackberry cobbler.
If you live in an agricultural zone that's hospitable to them, they grow on trailing vines with large spines. According to the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission (yes, there is such a thing), one acre of marionberry vines can harvest 6 tons of berries. That's good news for those who may just want a couple of plants for the yard.
Like blackberries, marionberries will last a few days in the fridge before they start to spoil. It's a race against time when they're in season, which isn't terribly short, but it certainly isn't long enough for marionberry fans. You can make it last longer by buying or picking extra berries and freezing them to use later in the year.
Luckily, freezing your own marionberries is easy. Simply rinse and pat berries dry, spread them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, and pop them in the freezer. After about an hour, they should be frozen through and ready to transfer to a sealable plastic bag or other sealed container and kept in the freezer for months.
Nutrition and Benefits
Like all blackberries, marionberries are high in antioxidants (vitamin C, gallic acid, and rutin in particular), as well as containing phytochemicals like ellagic acid and anthocyanins. Berries are also an excellent source of fiber—as just a cup of marionberries offers almost as much as a cup of cooked brown rice.