That literally means ‘blackberries’ in German. But unless you live in Ellis County, Kansas, I’m pretty sure the blackberry you are thinking of right now is not schwartzbeeren. You’re thinking of a bumpy dark purple berry that looks similar to a raspberry, right? That berry is well-known to most Germans also, who call it brombeeren. So, what the heck is schwartzbeeren, you ask? Before I can explain this berry and its bewitching hold on the locals, I need to give you a brief history lesson.
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, but born a German princess, enticed German immigrants to settle the untamed Volga River region with promises of freedom of religion, no taxation for thirty years, and perpetual freedom from military service. The hard-working Germans who accepted her offer maintained closed communities, retaining their German language and customs. A century later, long after Catherine had died, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promises and began to draft the young men into military service. Disgruntled, many of the Germans immigrated again, this time to America, where quite a few of them made their way to Ellis County, Kansas.
They brought with them the seeds of a plant they had discovered growing wild along the banks of the Volga River. For want of a better name, they called the smooth, round, blackish berry schwartzbeeren.
It is a tart berry, delicious in baked goods such as pies and kuchen, a German coffeecake. It grows on annual plants that can reach four feet in height in a single season. The plants grow naturally along creek and river banks with the seeds spread by birds who eat the berries. If grown in a garden, the plants require regular watering in order to produce an abundance of large, plump berries.
Each berry is filled with tiny seeds. Berries naturally fall off each plant and re-seed themselves annually. The climate of Western Kansas is very similar to the climate of the Volga River region, which is one of the reasons why the Volga Germans chose to re-settle here. It is also why schwartzbeeren thrive here.
Every year, I reserve fully half of my garden space for schwartzbeeren. We love them that much. I freeze the excess berries I pick each summer for use during the winter. The first year I planted my garden after our move to the farm, I sprinkled seeds from berries I had saved and dried the previous year. Since then, the plants have re-seeded themselves. Abundantly. In fact, most of the “weeds” around my cucumbers, beets, etc. are actually schwartzbeeren plants growing where they are not wanted.
Schwartzbeeren are not easy to pick. The plants are home to chiggers, minuscule blood-sucking bugs that crawl inside your clothes and give you a bite that itches like the dickens for several days. And the berries grow low to the ground so it is also slow, dirty, backbreaking work. And the berry itself is fragile so it requires a firm, yet gentle plucking technique. If you squeeze the tender berry too hard, you end up with a handful of seeds for next year’s schwartzbeeren crop instead of berries for this year’s pie. It can take an hour or more of picking to get enough berries for just one kuchen.
So, you ask, why on earth would I put myself through all that for a few berries? Simple. Because my family loves them. And this particular berry will never be found in any supermarket.
We, Ellis Countians, are not alone in our obsession over local berries. In August, 2002, Danny and I took our family on vacation to Whitefish, Montana. It happened to be peak picking season for the wild huckleberries that grow along the mountain ridges of northwestern Montana. While we were there, we purchased huckleberry cookies, huckleberry-flavored candy, huckleberry-flavored tea, even huckleberry-scented soap. One afternoon, Danny and I stepped into a small, locally-owned café for a little refreshment after a morning of sight-seeing. The friendly woman behind the counter obviously knew every person who lived in the town and did not recognize us, so she asked us where we were from. After a pleasant chat, she asked what we would like to order. We pointed to the chalkboard advertising homemade huckleberry pie, and we each ordered a piece. The previously-smiling waitress now paused and looked at us warily. She then proceeded to explain how difficult the wild berries were to find and pick. And that not everyone liked and appreciated the berries the way the locals did. It was an acquired taste, she explained. I sensed a bit of a warning when she asked us, were we certain that we still wanted huckleberry pie? Two pieces of huckleberry pie?
We were certain.
We were quite convinced that we were the only non-locals in the café, because every eye in the place was watching us critically as we each took our first bite. Thank goodness, we loved it! It was delicious! To the approval of all the observing locals, we cleaned our plates of every last crumb.
I totally got it. I, too, feel almost obsessively protective of my schwartzbeeren. You don’t work that hard just to see someone throw it in the trash. So, if I offer someone a piece of schwartzbeeren pie, and that someone graciously declines saying, “No thanks, I don’t really care for schwartzbeeren,” I am never offended. In fact, just the opposite.
Mmmmm. More for me.
(My mother, descended from Volga Germans, made entire meals out of schwartzbeeren and dumplings. It was a simple, summer staple loved by our entire family and I still make it for my family to this day.)
Next Week: An Update on Junior
16 thoughts on “What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?”
MaryKay I must tell you how much I enjoyed your informative and interesting writing about the schwartzbeeren I m hooked on your writing. 💕 Marcy Allenbaugh
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I live in Wilder Idaho I am of German decent my Grandparents grew the Schwwartzbeeren berry and so my pedants did also l know that the same berry’s lam now growing are the same my grandma told of how they sewed the seeds in there clothing.and brought them hereto Nebraska’s and then to ldaho
Mary Kay, I love the history of the Schwartzbeeren! I grew up with them and have gotten back into growing them last two years. I can relate to the hard work they require and the fight against pests! I staved the aphids off this year, for a while. Sure wish I could figure out how to eliminate them altogether!
I’m out in the central valley of California and have maintained a small garden in the back for a number of years, and for the last couple I have had this strange nightshade looking plant show up mixed in with my tomatoes. For a while I pulled them with the rest of the weeds, but we were gone for a trip and came back to find them with these little clusters of black berries. I was very curious (as was my 2yr old who snacks on the Cherry tomatoes we grow) and so I started doing some research and found this post and a couple others all with the same origin story. As I majored in History in college I was rather intrigued, and verified your account though some academic sources, before trying a single berry. I was pleasantly surprised by the unique flavor and sweetness. I even went and found the bag of tomato seeds I had stashed away from last year and found that the seeds originated in Kansas! I replanted what I had just pulled up and and interested in seeing if I can cultivate a little crop of my own!
Hi Kathy. My grandparents also lived along the Volga River and settled in Rhien Saskatchewan Canada. We had schswartzbeeren growing in our garden. Mom made the kuchen and dumplings from them. My parents passed away over the last 2 years and we came across some bags of berries in the freezer. They could be about 20 years old as they moved to a different house about that time and didn’t replant them. We new them as German blackberries.
Loved your article. I too am a Volga German from Ellis County Kansas. I remember picking the berries for my grandmother. I would like to find some seeds so I could plant some. No one where I live now knows what I’m talking about when I say schwartzbeeren.
We had a bunch of volunteer schwartzbeeren sprout in our KS garden this year. I saved 6 of them. I’ve never grown or eaten them before and there is a lot of misinformation out there about this berry. Most people believe black nightshade to be poisonous. However, there are multiple species of black nightshade and there are distinct differences between the edible and non-edible ones. I highly recommend Samuel Thayer’s book “Nature’s Garden” which is the authoritative source for information on edible black nightshade. Green Deane has an informative blog post as well but he doesn’t go as far as stating which species are definitely edible.
@Carol – You might be able to find the seeds on davesgarden or seedsavers.
If you can’t get the seeds through those sites just post another comment here and I’ll list them at the end of the season as soon as I have some seeds.
Are you comparing Montana huckleberries to schwarzbeeres? Those are two different berries. Completely different taste too!
No, I’m not comparing the berries. I was comparing the passionate love of the local berries. Montanans for their huckleberries and Kansans for their schwartzbeeren. Thanks for reading my blog!
My mom is wanting to buy some berries. She lives in Neb. in retirement apt. Any one know where she can buy some.
I bought some of these seeds from “Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds” and Google led me here to learn more about them.
Anyone know if these can be grown in containers? Specifically half-cask barrels?
I am in Southern California so watering is a concern. Much of our garden is raised beds and wine barrels with drip lines. On the west coast you can find Huckleberry in the Sierras, Coast Ranges and Cascades near rivers and creeks and there is some some commercial growing. But cannot find anything on containers.
I haven’t had any luck growing these outside due to aphids and ants. There is a strange symbiotic relationship between the aphids that feed on the leaves and the ants that feed on a sugary substance excreted by the aphids.
You’ll start to see black aphids on the underneath side of the leaves and then the leaves begin to curl. At that point ants show up and start crawling all over the plant. So I did some research and it turns out the ants, for a lack of a better word, farm the aphids. The aphids excrete a sugary substance that the ants feed on so the ants try to keep the aphids there as long as possible. I’ve dusted the entire plant with diatomaceous earth including all of the aphids and ants and they just keep returning. I’ve tried cutting all of the infected leaves and berries off the plant. And they just return.
So this year I am growing one in a container on my screened porch. We’ll see if that keeps the aphids/ants away. My guess is they will do better in a container than outdoors.
For those interested in growing these:
And an orange varietal:
I grow mine in containers. Mine are almost a trap crop — literally covered with leaf-footed bugs that pay little interest in my other plants.they taste very much like a bland, sweetish tomato to me. I’m not sure I’ll grow them next year. They are very productive but rather tedious. And the pests. I’ve never seen so many in my gardens.
I grow Schwartzbeeren in 27-gallon black totes that I buy at Home Depot. I drill holes in the bottom for drainage. I also elevate them about a foot off the ground using stacks of 7″ x 14″ paving blocks. Being that elevated makes picking the berries much easier.