New UA blackberry off to a great start

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 683 views 

John Clark monitors the growth and development of Ponca blackberry at the Fruit Research Station near Clarksville. (UA System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller).

The University of Arkansas blackberry breeding program has released multiple award-winning blackberry varieties, and its newest, Ponca, has been successful since it became available for sale to licensed propagators in early 2020 and to nurseries in December 2020.

John Clark, distinguished professor of horticulture at the UA and fruit breeder for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, said “I have never seen a blackberry that so many people like or get so excited about. This is a unique experience for me. This is not like anything else.”

The experiment station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and is based at the Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences in Fayetteville. Its Fruit Research Station is near Clarksville. In a recent UA video, Clark highlighted Ponca’s consistency, sweetness and storage potential.

Sales numbers for the Ponca have yet to become available as the reporting deadline for propagators is in August. However, Bryan Renk, director of technology commercialization for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, estimated “a few hundred thousand plants have sold so far.”

Renk noted this might be the best start for any blackberry with a limited amount of available plants. Interest also has developed overseas, where sales are beginning this fall.

“Out of the gate, Ponca is doing really well,” Renk said.

Clark said the plants are reproduced from tissue cultures, which is how they are distributed, and this takes time. The first two propagators/nurseries were AgriStarts of Apopka, Fla., and North American Plants of LaFayette, Ore. A third, Nourse Farms of Massachusetts, is reproducing and selling them now but started later than the first two. Arkansas doesn’t have any large propagation operations, he noted. Part of propagation includes testing and eliminating viruses that cause diseases in the plants.

At least one fruit grower in Northwest Arkansas is growing Ponca blackberries and selling them at farmers markets in Fayetteville and Bentonville – McGarrah Farms of Pea Ridge, Clark said.

In 2020, Ouachita, a 2003 thornless variety, received the Outstanding Fruit Cultivar Award from the Fruit Breeding Professional Interest Group of the American Society of Horticultural Science. Another variety, Navaho, is a previous award winner.

Recently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proclaimed June as blackberry month and noted the acres of blackberries planted in the state has risen 25% over the past three years. Arkansas has about 300 acres in production, and the state’s blackberry crop is valued at $4 million annually. The UA blackberry breeding program has released 21 varieties, which are planted globally and have contributed to the expansion of blackberries as a commercial crop worldwide over the past 25 years.