The Boysenberry Saga

How I—accidentally—saved the original 1923 boysenberry.

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From my angle, The Boysenberry Saga started when Paul, my husband Mike’s brother, married Carrie, his talented, upbeat lady fair in 1976. It was at their wedding reception that I learned that Carrie was a member of the Boysen family (her mother’s maiden name) and what that meant. We guests were seated at the outdoor banquet when Gussie Boysen, Carrie’s grandma, stepped up front holding a modest shoebox.

The first rule is they can be given only to Boysen family members.

Grandma Gussie introduced herself as the widow of Leland Boysen, brother of Rudy Boysen, the man who developed and first commercialized the berry in 1923 up in Napa, California. She looked at us. “Now that Paul has married Carrie, you Maseks are officially members of the Boysen clan, so I can give you these rooted cuttings from my patch in Merced.” She raised the box and continued, “There are two rules. They can be given only to Boysen family members, and you have to take them with you if you ever move.”

We were the only Maseks there who had space to plant berries, so we got the whole box. We took them home and dutifully grew them in our backyard.

I planted them in two short rows about 3 feet apart, perpendicular to our back fence. When the plants overgrew their short trellises, I wove the longer strands across the top, making a cavelike space with the fence as the back wall. That November, to celebrate our daughter’s birthday, we had a Candyland birthday party, with different sweet treats hung in each of our many fruit trees for the children to “harvest.” The Boysenberry tunnel became a perfect “candy bar cave” with chocolate bars dangling from the shady “ceiling” above.

I watered the boysenberries through several of our California droughts. “Why am I doing this?” I would ask myself as I gave them precious rationed water. The answer was that our kids LOVED the berries when they ripened each Springtime. They would be enormously disappointed if I let them die.

I kept those berries going in our backyard for 40 years. Then on Sunday, July 13, 2016, I received an unexpected email. “Dear Alice,” it began, “this might be one of the more unusual emails you will get this year. My name is Jeanette Fitzgerald. I am the granddaughter of Rudy Boysen, Leland Boysen’s older brother.” Nettie explained that she was looking for the original thorny berry strain her grandfather had developed so she and her husband Tom could re-commercialize it—and no one in her side of the family still had any. She heard I might have some growing in our yard.

That weekend, Nettie and Tom drove all the way from Las Vegas, Nevada, to our home in Castro Valley, California, to get some slips. Nettie cut off some growing tips and used a rooting compound to try to get them started back at her place.

None of them took root. Nettie was devastated.

Meanwhile I had observed the ways the plant liked to reproduce, through root starts (sprouting where roots had spread underground) and tip starts (where a vine touched the ground and started putting out roots). I promised Nettie that by January I would have 24 root and tip starts for her. I put the vine tips into plastic “Spring greens” bins filled with planting mix. They rooted, still attached to the mother bush. The night before we left, I cut them free for transport. Then I dug up the root starts, wrapped them with damp rags, and packed them into boxes.

Nettie told me that Rudy’s original thorny berries had been gifted to the Knott family, neighbors of the Boysens, and had fueled the growth of what became Knott’s Berry Farm. At some point, the Knott family had switched to a thornless variant. For the Boysens, the original had more flavor—and rich meaning as a family heirloom.

Mike and I loaded my backyard starts into our van, drove them down, and helped plant them, two rows of 12 plants each, in wire pots to keep gophers out. Our last effort of that day was to set up a wire fence to keep out the fields’ ever-present rabbits. Tom also set up a drip watering system that could be controlled through his cell phone.

The next morning, Nettie put out little signs to name each plant. She named one Alice and another, Mike. Miraculously, all those little plants flourished. And by the end of that season, Tom had used rooting techniques to parlay those 24 plants into 900 starts!

Time to start ramping up the operation. After a frantic search for the right property, Tom and Nettie bought several alfalfa fields in Orland, California, and began planning to move. Tom hired folks to plow, turn, shape rows and dig hollows for each plant, and add fertilizer and sulfur (to make the soil more acidic). Then, with the help of a friend, they dug up about 500 of their starts. The couple packed them into a trailer and headed north. Mike and I met them in Orland to help nestle the baby plants into their new homes.

What a feeling, to cup my hands over those little root balls and jiggle them into the welcoming soil. These little plants were the grandchildren of the ones in my backyard—every one of them! Some were small but fully formed; others showed only a reddish dart of life. It didn’t seem to matter: almost every one survived and thrived! Tom and Nettie hosted us in the living room of a cozy trailer that overlooked their fields of promise. We spent several days helping plant the 500 that week and about 400 more a few weeks later.

The vines grew with gusto to 12-18 feet long, twisted over the aisles, and tangled in a gigantic Celtic love knot with the alfalfa that had resprouted in the fields. It was a huge task to clear those walking aisles and lay the vines along the planting ridge so Tom could mow between the rows. I was so proud when I cleared one 200-foot aisle all by myself!

Blossoms were a huge excitement, and the first fruits—delicious!—were tasted with relish. The next year, when Tom and Nettie were ready to open their first U-Pick season, Mike and I rushed down to join them. I helped paint signs and hand-painted
rocks for Nettie to hide in the rows for lucky kids to find. What fun to be part of all this!

Because the family rules restricting berry-sharing had almost led to their extinction, Nettie changed them. Now we can share the plants with others who want them, several of our neighbors and friends are growing them.

Mike and I have been invited to a celebration of the revival of Rudy’s Original Boysenberry in Orland at the end of May. What an honor to be included! And how ironic it will be if, with all my creative outlets as a paper-cutting artist, author, and composer, I am remembered the most for keeping these 1923 Rudy’s Original Boysenberries alive for their 2023 Centennial!

  • What a lovely story, and how wonderful that the family shared the cuttings with family and friends, small world, even the Knott’s were included!


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