April 3, 2012

‘Purple Wonder’: Small, Dark and Delicious

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Cornell’s newest variety of strawberry, “Purple Wonder,” offers a color not found in any grocery store. Created by Prof. Courtney Weber, horticulture, Purple Wonder is darker than the typical strawberry, and, according to Weber, boasts a sweeter taste than its bright red cousins.

“The color comes with a very good flavor. Dark-colored strawberry varieties are not unknown, but often varieties that get dark have a poor flavor as they ripen. But this one seems to get sweeter the riper it gets,” Weber said.

The “purple” strawberry is not an artificial color. “The color is not purple like Barney purple—it’s more a deep red wine or burgundy color. The juice is also wine colored,” Weber said. Compared to a store-bought red strawberry, Purple Wonder contains higher amounts of antioxidants and higher amounts of anthocyanin, the pigment that gives strawberries their color. Anthocyanin is also the same pigment that gives blood oranges and raspberries a red color. “Besides the color and more intense flavor, it’s not really different from a normal strawberry,” Weber said.

Weber and other Cornell horticulturalists created Purple Wonder using traditional plant breeding methods. They made hybrid seeds by taking pollen from one strawberry vine, putting it onto the flower of another vine, and collecting the seeds. The seeds are grown as individual plants to help researchers find new varieties.

With hundreds of options to choose from, the scientists evaluated the plants and the fruit thoroughly and made selections based on their characteristics. Most of the new types of berries never make it through the successive selections to become new varieties.

“Purple Wonder was selected for its quality fruit; when it was selected, it probably wasn’t selected for its dark color because the color comes on later in the ripening process,” Weber said. “The fruit caught my eye. I tasted it. It tasted good.”

After the initial selection, the plants go through more plantings and selections. According to Weber, Purple Wonder was initially selected in 1999, but it, like most strawberry varieties, took over 10 years of evaluation and analysis to become commercially viable. In the second round of selections, the plant was evaluated based on disease resistance, health, fruit quality and taste, and several other factors. “Over the years we weed out things that we don’t feel meet the standards that we are looking for,” Weber said.

Each new variety of strawberry plant is first produced through cross-pollination to create genetic variation. After the first evaluation, horticulturists clone the selected plants from their runners, also called stolons—horizontal stems that form new plants identical to the original. Purple Wonder underwent through two such plantings, each of which took three years. three-year long cloned plantings. Each of the plantings occurred on successively larger plots. According to Weber, the final phase is a tissue culture of the plant that tests the new variety for disease and other viral contamination. “We want to ensure that the plants we produce for testing off of our station, at a grower or a nursery, do not contaminate outside fields,” he said. After these three phases of selection and evaluation, a berry is ready for distribution outside of Cornell.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a seed company that sells to home-growers, contacted Weber looking for a new plant that would interest their customers. Weber suggested Purple Wonder.

“Home-growers and hobbyists are often much more adventuresome when it comes to new and different varieties. They are interested in things that are different from what they can buy in the supermarket,” Weber said. Burpee Seeds introduced the plant at the Philadelphia International Flower Show this past March. According to Weber, the plants are successful having already sold out on the company’s website.

“This strawberry is unusual because of its nature; we didn’t find a lot commercial interest from strawberry producers who produce for the market because it’s not a traditional color. Everyone has an idea of what they think a strawberry should look like and usually that’s red,” Weber said. Most growers, he explained, are unsure if anyone will buy the unusually colored strawberry.

Some growers, however, are very interested in the purple berry. Michigan grower A.J. MacArthur grows strawberries and also produces berries for a local winery that makes strawberry wine. “I heard about it when Purple Wonder was still just a number at a North American Strawberry Growers Association meeting; [Weber] just threw that one in there on a whim; he didn’t even have any pictures for it. He just mentioned it casually, and it caught my attention because of the color,” MacArthur said.

Strawberry wine has a reputation for not retaining its color well because it oxidizes and turns brown, Weber said. The larger amount of pigment in Purple Wonder should impede browning. “I talked to [the winery] in early January and although they haven’t bottled it yet, they are very excited about the color of the wine,” MacArthur said.

Because Purple Wonder is now being sold as mainly a potted plant, and not on a commercial scale, MacArthur is unable to get enough plants to expand his cultivation of Purple Wonder. “Until we get more plants, we are just sitting here,” MacArthur said.

Weber told his brother and sister-in-law, who also grow berries, about the new strawberry. As berry farmers in Illinois, the pair decided to plant Purple Wonder at their farm which sells at a local farmers’ market and allows the public to pick their own berries. “For us, when we tell people who want to come out and pick that we have a purple strawberry variety, that really gets their interest because it’s very unique. We are the only ones in Illinois that we are aware of that have any Purple Wonder, so that really draws their interest. Most people that come out specifically ask about our purple strawberry,” he said.

Currently, there are some plots of Purple Wonder in the fields at Cornell. If the plants survive this spring’s erratic weather without freezing, the purple strawberries will be available for two to three weeks come June, Weber said. And although they will not be sold at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, there will be an open house that month to introduce Purple Wonder to the public.

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Original Author: Sarah Cohen