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This is a berry good book!

Berries by Victoria Dickenson 2020. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Even though I’m a Botanist I’ve never had a great understanding of fruits and seeds. I am however, aware that the fruit botanically known as a berry has a very specific technical definition and meaning. I was therefore, and understandably, a little concerned that Berries by Victoria Dickenson [which book is here appraised] would fall down on that score – despite being a title in Reaktion BooksBotanical Series. I’m pleased to say that my fears were groundless: this matter is met head on and dealt with from the first sentence of the first chapter of Berries where a berry is defined as “any multi-seeded fruit without a stone that grows from a single flower” (p. 11), and thereby fully justifies its Botanical Series credentials. However, having clearly acknowledged the botanical meaning of berry, the author makes it equally clear that it’s berries in the more usual, layperson’s, sense of the word that are considered in the rest of the book. Although some of those included culinary berries are also proper botanical berries, famously strawberry, blackberry, and mulberry are not. In other words – and using the common-sense pragmatism of fruits-of-the-forest foragers and gardeners – if it looks like a berry, and tastes like a berry, it’s a berry…

Berries in focus in Berries

Although many fruits such as grapes, oranges and lemons, and cucumbers are true botanical berries, they are largely beyond the scope of Dickenson’s book – there is a limit to what you can realistically cover in 208 pages if you are to provide sufficient depth of coverage and a book of substance. Or, as Dickenson puts it, “These three berry families [Vitaceae, Rutaceae, Cucurbitaceae (Guillaume Chomicki et al., 2020. New Phytologist 226: 1240–1255; doi: 10.1111/nph.16015), respectively] are the legendary fruits of fertility in the European imagination”, but, these berries “have been the subject of so many treatises, books and poems that this book [her Berries] is dedicated to the humbler fruits of field and forest, the small sweet juicy offspring of bush, branch and earth” (p. 24). Berries therefore concentrates upon fruits in the Rosaceae [the rose family] – blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries [none of which are true botanical berries…], and cranberries and blueberries [both of which are true berries] in the Ericaceae [the heather family]. However, for good measure, the Solanaceae [the nightshade family] – with edible fruits such as tomatoes, chillies, and peppers [and which are true berries] – gets a good mention. And that family’s inclusion is particularly important in reminding us that not all berries are good to eat, e.g. those of potato, and deadly nightshade – the latter’s berries being particularly problematic because their toxicity is masked by their being – allegedly! – sweet to the taste.

Berries delivers the breadth expected for a Botanical Series title

My loyal readers should by now know what to expect from a title in Reaktion Book’s Botanical Series (e.g. here, here, and here). In that respect all I need to say is that Berries upholds that collection’s fine tradition of improving the public’s botanical-literacy*. I.e. Berries is well-written with some really nice phrasing – such as “current consumption” (p. 169), and “strawberry fields forever” (p. 161), is abundantly illustrated, and provides a wealth of plants-and-people information – and more-academic botanical knowledge**. An indication of the range of topics covered can be gleaned from these selected Index entries: açai berries (a so-called ‘superfruit’); Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan scientist, not the 20th century artist of the same name, who experimented with water culture for growing plants); Hieronymus Bosch (Dickenson has interesting berry-based facts to share about that artist’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights); currants (true berries with >30 Index entries…); the Devil (for which entity ‘Old Gooseberry’ – a true berry – was apparently a nickname…); Seamus Heaney (20th century Nobel Prize-winning Irish wordsmith); clamshell packaging (an 1990s’ innovation that facilitated minimally-damaging, long-distance transport of picked berries); Pyramus and Thisbe (ill-fated/star-crossed lovers who killed themselves beneath a mulberry tree); Sami (an indigenous people of northern Europe noted for their reindeer-herding and fondness for crowberries); Henry David Thoreau (a great American advocate for, and writer about, fruits and berries – including an unpublished lecture on the huckleberry – and with a most impressive 13 Index entries); the Virgin Mary (Mother of Jesus Christ); and Alfred Russel Wallace (yes, Charles Darwin also gets a mention in the book – apparently, he was a gooseberry fan who grew 54 varieties, but, since we tend to hear less about this co-proposer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, I choose to highlight this much-overlooked Welsh naturalist here rather than the better-promoted English naturalist…).

Past, present, and future of berries

Berries, like cereals, have been eaten by humans for thousands of years, but, and unlike cereals, for most of that time they have been exploited as a seasonal harvest direct from nature. Although cereals were domesticated by humans at the dawn of agriculture ten thousand years ago or thereabouts, berries weren’t brought into cultivation by humans until 1368 when the wood strawberry was first grown in a French garden. Since the late 14th century there have been many attempts to cultivate and improve upon the natural product with intense breeding and development of new forms such as the loganberry (a cross between a raspberry and blackberry, bred in the garden of one Judge Logan…), and the boysenberry (a new variety of blackberry). Despite these attempts at taming the wild berry, until relatively recently most people gathered their own supplies of berries from the wild. This communal collecting activity was a great social event in which large groups of people participated, helping to strengthen bonds within and between families, and reinforcing that important connection between people, the land and nature’s bounty. Underlining this bond, Dickenson reminds us that the annual berry harvest was an important event marking the calendar for North American indigenous peoples. As progress has been made in many aspects of berry-culture, the health virtues of berries – genuine or hoped-for – have led to at least some of these edibles being categorised as “superfruits”, which word was apparently added to the dictionary in 2004. This descriptor was an ad-man’s dream and has prompted the marketing of the next generation of exotic berry superfruits from the mid-2000s, e.g. goji berry (Zheng Feei Ma et al., 2019. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2019; 2019: 2437397; 10.1155/2019/2437397), sea buckthorn, haskap berries, saskatoon berry, and the açai berry (Mei Earling et al., 2019. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 74: 421–429; https://doi.org/10.1007/s11130-019-00755-5). The medicinal qualities – alleged or real – has led to the marketing of some of these berries as “fruiticeuticals”. And Dickenson also mentions more berries that may be ripe for future exploitation, such as the Giant Colombian blackberry (Rubus nubigenus) (Wilson Popenoe, 1920. Journal of Heredity 11(5): 195–202; https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a102002), Ecuador’s ‘grapes of the moor’ (Vaccinium floribundum), central Australia’s bush tomato (Solanum centrale), and salal (Gaultheria shallon) from the damp slopes of the northwest coast of North America. The story of humankind and berries is far from over.

Berries is typical, yet atypical…

Although providing plants-and-people content and coverage that’s typical for a title in Reaktion Books’ Botanical Series, Berries adopts an atypical approach to its subject matter. Most – all? – other Series’ titles consider an individual species or selection of species in a genus or a family and their interactions with humans, i.e. in a narrowly-constrained taxonomic way. Berries considers one facet of a plant – the fruits known as berries – and explores that facet in a number of species from different families that cut across taxonomic boundaries. Berries therefore examines its subject matter in a more laterally-dispersed way. Given the multiplicity of plant-people interactions, there are many ways in which one could develop any botanical topic, and it’s good to see a different approach used in Dickenson’s tome.

A note about its SciComm credentials

The goal of Reaktion’s Botanical series is “integrating horticultural and botanical writing with a broader account of the cultural and social impact of trees, plants and flowers”. I.e. it’s plant-and-people writing that aspires to improve the public’s appreciation of the significance of plants in our lives, and thereby improve humankind’s botanical literacy*. Since Botany is a science, such books are therefore examples of ‘SciComm’ (Terry Burns et al., 2003.Public Understanding of Science 12: 183-202; https://doi.org/10.1177/09636625030122004). Although with more emphasis on the cultural, artistic, sociological, and historical inter-relatedness rather than the pure science aspects of the botanical subject matter they may be considered ‘SciComm-lite’. Nevertheless, a key aspect of getting the key plants-and-people message over is to support the narrative by appropriate evidence. And Berries is evidence-based, as is typical for a Botanical Series title: Sources used are indicated in-text by super-scripted numbers, which are expanded upon in an end-of-book listing of Notes by chapter, supplemented by a Select Bibliography. Frustratingly, there weren’t always sufficient sources for all the facts presented. For example, in Chapter 1, there were almost three pages of text between Notes 21 and 22, which contained numerous statements of fact but for which the sources weren’t indicated. A couple of specifics from elsewhere in the book; intrigued by the notion that sugar “was initially regarded as a spice” (p. 130) I wanted to know more, but there is no reference for this assertion.*** Neither was there a source to support the statement “Sugar was heavily taxed in Britain until the 1870s” (p. 142).**** Whilst these oversights don’t unduly mar the overall value of the book and one’s enjoyment of the subject matter, they can be a little irritating for those who’ve been inspired by the subject matter – assisted by the author’s undoubted enthusiasm for the subject – and desire to know more. A sign of a good SciComm book is that it’s encouraged the reader to want to find out more. But, if that new-found interest is thwarted by lack of the necessary evidence to pursue, the book is not doing as good a job as it could. Finally, an example of an incomplete source rather than one that is absent. The much-practised practice of growing berry-bearing fruit under plastic in polytunnels gives rise to plastic pollution in the environment, which is termed ‘white pollution’ in China. Wishing to get to the source for this fascinating phrase I was pleased to see that Dickenson had provided the requisite in-text Number and an expanded Note at the back of the book. However, although the authors, article title, journal name and publication date were provided, irritatingly omitted were the volume and page numbers (which important information did appear to be provided for all the other journal articles cited by the author…).*****

Too many berries..?

In reading Berries I was struck by the similarity of some of its approach and content to that adopted by Reaktion Books’ The Edible Series. That collection examines foods and drinks and each title “provides an outline for one type of food or drink, revealing its history and culture on a global scale. … Key recipes as well as reference material accompany each title.” Given the important food value of its topic, Dickenson’s Berries includes much of culinary importance and even includes recipes for gooseberry fool, and one “to keep green gooseberries till Christmas”. Does this mean that the book would have been a better fit in the publisher’s Edible Series? No. Why? Because there is already a book entitled Berries (by Heather Arndt Anderson) in that series. Whilst there are certainly similarities between the two books of the same name, a brief scrutiny of Anderson’s Berries shows that it contains gems of berry facts that are absent from Dickenson’s Berries.****** For example, I was previously unaware that double Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie “enjoyed making gooseberry jam in her spare time, and kept meticulous notes on her recipes and process”. Which goes to show that there’s a lot more to know about berries and people than can fit into a single Berries book – and which probably can’t be fully captured even in two such books.


What better way to sum up the book’s subject matter than to quote the author: “Berries are botanically confusing, horticulturally complex and almost uniformly delicious – truly the first fruits of the earth” (p. 10). And reading about them is a great way of wiling away the time until they are harvestable again. Berries by Victoria Dickenson is a great book on a great topic: Read it!

* For more on botanical literacy, see Martin C. Mathes (BioScience 33: 479, 1983; https://doi.org/10.1093/bioscience/33.8.479); Gordon Uno (Am J Bot 96:1753-1759, 2009; doi: 10.3732/ajb.0900025); Claire Hemingway et al. (Science 331: 1535-1536, 2011; doi: 10.1126/science.1196979); and Rosanne Quinelle (2017).

** It’s worth mentioning that Chapter 1 – “Berries true and false” – is a great read on the biology and ecology of berries, and is an excellent stand-alone section for a botany class.

*** For those who are interested, I’ve tracked down a few sources that support this statement – here, here, and here.

**** Here are a few sources that can be used to substantiate the statement that sugar was heavily taxed in Britain until the 1870s – here, here, and here.

***** However, as a service to my readers I’m happy to provide that missing information here, along with a complete citation for completeness: Mark Ingman, Mary V. Santelmann, Bryan Tilt, 2015. Agricultural water conservation in China: plastic mulch and traditional irrigation. Environmental Health and Sustainability 1: 1-11; https://doi.org/10.1890/EHS14-0018.1

****** And, for some sort of balance, it’s worth adding that Edible’s Berries also deals with the botanical definition of its subject matter.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [https://plantcuttings.uk] (and formerly at Botany One [https://botany.one/author/nigelchaffey/]). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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