The berry-ed truth

This past summer, I worked in Sackville as the Indigenous Garden intern. This involved taking care of the teepee area behind Colville house and tending the garden to harvest for the food bank on campus. I was excited to learn about plant life in a hands-on manner. I learned that the information obtained through researching plants is incomparable to what you can learn from actually tending the plants and watching them grow. 

The first plant in my garden that sparked my interest was the strawberry, since it is always the first to ripen in the spring. If you see the plant when it is flowering, it has small white flowers which eventually bear fruit. Through research, I found that strawberries belong to the rose family, which piqued my interest. Fragaria, the Latin name for the plant, is said to refer to the natural fragrance. Atu’omgemin, the Mi’kmaw name, means “the fruit that grows in the shade on the grass.” In the English name strawberry, the prefix straw is in reference to the plant growing in grass and/or straw, but I wasn’t really sure why “berry” was thrown in there. Something that my plant-loving mind must share is that strawberries are not botanically classified as berries.  

This information led me into a deep dive on fruit classification. A true berry is a fleshy fruit that develops from a single ovary of a flower with seeds embedded in their flesh. I discovered that not only is a strawberry not a berry, it’s barely even fruit. Instead, it’s known as an accessory fruit. What most of us would think of as its seeds on the outside are what botanists believe to be the actual fruit, and the red flesh is nothing but swollen tissue. Also, raspberries and blackberries aren’t berries either, they are considered to be aggregate fruits (or multiple-fruit). It turns out that the scientific community has long since decided that none of those fruits are actually berries, leaving the public looking foolish. Well, no more, I say! It is time for the truth to be revealed! 

I’d like to issue a warning for this next piece of information for those of you on Team Veggie in the great tomato debate: not only is a tomato a fruit, it is also a berry. To reiterate the facts of the new reality we are in, a tomato is more a berry than a strawberry. There has been a lot of debate about putting pineapple on pizza because “fruit doesn’t belong on pizza,” but you’d never think twice about a tomato, which we’ve established is more of a berry than a strawberry is a fruit. Amidst this confusion, we can thankfully rely on blueberries, cranberries, and gooseberries to be accurately named. 

What other fruit names can we trust? I think it’s time we head back to the drawing board and rethink some of the names. The term berry originates from an old English term, berie, which actually meant grape. As the English language spread, many grape-style fruits took on the berry name, meaning the grape is the original, true berry and its name shall remain unchanged. However, I must list a few true berries with some easy temporary renames until we can figure this out: bananas to nanaberry, avocado to (derived from its original name alligator pear) alligatorberry. As for our controversial tomato, we trace back its Spanish origin, which can (very) roughly translate to fat-water, making fat-waterberry the ideal name moving forward. 

An important component of being a successful gardener is plant identification, seeing as the names of what is being grown can help determine how to properly support its growth. As humans, this is how we build relationships with one another and the living world, a natural impulse to avoid what philosophers call “species loneliness.” The hero Nanabozho, a prominent figure to many Indigenous peoples in the story of the world’s creation, was given the responsibility of learning the names of all beings. To complete this task, he spoke with them all to learn what gifts they had, and learn their true names. In doing so, he felt more connected with them.  

To conclude, I’ve decided it shouldn’t matter what language, what name, or what classification I give a plant while working with them. All plants have several names, and they may misrepresent or take away the individualism of the actual plant. The best way to learn about a plant is to spend time in the garden alongside them.

3 Responses

  1. Not only is this article informative and interesting but also well-written, which, as a writer and gardener, myself, I can appreciate and even more so, as a proud grandmother.

  2. We were lucky to have you this past summer! And look at you…researching the many facets of the strawberry and educating us all!
    I love this!

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