Strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are edible fruits that people all over the world enjoy in a variety of ways. They’re also not actually berries, as any botanist would tell you (likely after a heavy sigh and a montage of flashbacks in their head about the delicious disaster that is berry categorization). If that were the case, though, then how did we end up calling these tiny, tasty fruits “berries” in the first place? It’s because English-speaking folks have been using the word “berry” in everyday conversation long before science could pick a proper definition for it.
“Berry” traces its roots to the Old English berie (meaning “grape”). Historians say that the practice of calling small, round fruits “berries” began when colonizers reached the Americas. Some of these so-called “berries” have rather colorful origins; strawberries, for example, are said to have been derived from “strewn berry,” which either describes the way the plant spreads its fruit on the ground or references how English youth picked the fruits and impaled them on grass straws for selling.
Botanically speaking, a true berry is a simple fruit that grows from a flower with a single ovary and typically contains several seeds. Also, a berry has three distinct fleshy layers: the exocarp or outer skin, mesocarp or fleshy middle, and endocarp or innermost part (which typically holds the seeds). Strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries don’t fit this definition. Rather, they’re aggregate fruits; they develop from a single flower with more than one ovary. Interestingly, just like the apple, they belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).
In the case of strawberries, each of those tiny dots (achenes) on the fruit’s outer layer is actually an ovary containing a seed. Meanwhile, the outer layers of blackberries and raspberries consist of clusters of small subdivisions called drupelets.
So wait—if all of those berries aren’t really berries, then which fruits are? Aside from grapes, bananas, pumpkins, avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, oranges, kiwis, and even watermelons are all classified as berries.
Blueberries and cranberries are a bit more complicated. Since they meet the “one flower, one ovary” requirement, some botanists consider them to be true berries. However, others say that because they grow beneath the flower parts and not from the flower itself, they’re actually epigynous berries (or “false” berries).
Indeed, berry categorization is a messy business, and has been for centuries. So don’t feel bad about any of this—even scientists find the whole thing berry confusing.
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Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.