All fruits are the product of flower fertilization. The female reproductive organ of a flower is called an ovary; it holds one or more egg cell-producing ovules. When pollen (which contains plant sperm cells) lands on a flower's stigma (a part of the pistil), it triggers the development of one or more seeds inside the ovary, and a fruit begins to form. The ovary walls to grow into a soft, fleshy pericarp around the seeds, which forms the outer layer of a fruit. In fact, you will find that you know many botanically-labelled fruits as vegetables; when scientists create classifications, they are only concerned with structure, and not with whether you'd be more likely to put it on your cereal or your hamburger.
A berry is a specific category of fruit. They are simple fruits, which form from a single ovary in a single flower. Because their pericarp is soft all the way through, they are further classified as fleshy simple fruits. Fleshy simple fruits are the true berries of the botanical world, and they include, among other things: grapes, tomatoes, persimmons, peppers, and eggplant.
To help organize the riotous fruit salad of botanical science, there are further subsets of berries. Pepos and hesperidium are modified berries, meaning that they have all the characteristics of berries, but also share additional characteristics amongst themselves. Pepo describes the berry structures of fruits such as squash, cucumber, watermelon, and pumpkins; these fruits have edible pericarps and rinds formed from the outer layer of their skin which may or may not be edible. Hesperidium refers to berries with a leathery skin and sectioned flesh surrounded by pith – think citrus fruits, like grapefruit, oranges, lemons, and kumquats.
When is a Berry not a Berry?
If it looks like a berry and tastes like a berry, it may nevertheless not be a berry – at least, not botanically speaking. It could, instead, be one of a number of other types of fruits – including drupes, pomes, aggregate fruits, accessory fruits, and epigynous or false berries.
A drupe is a fruit with a juicy pericarp and a hard endocarp (which is the inner layer surrounding the seeds). Drupes include stone fruits such as cherries, peaches, olives, and mangoes. Coconuts are also considered drupes, since they consist of a hard endocarp surrounding the seed embryo, which is embedded in the coconut flesh. The outer layers (the mesocarp and exocarp) are generally removed prior to sale.
A pome is a fruit that has its ovary at center, embedded in a core. Apples and pears are common pomes. You can, technically, eat the inner core that contains the seeds, but most people prefer not to.
An aggregate fruit emerges from the fusion of multiple ovaries in a single flower; unlike true berries, they do not conform to a one-ovary-one-flower rule. Blackberries and raspberries, for example, are formed from tiny individual drupes called drupelets, which each consist of a juicy pericarp surrounding a hard seed.
Related to aggregate fruits are accessory fruits. Accessory fruits, such as strawberries and pineapples, are created when tissue surrounding the plant ovary is incorporated into the formation of the fruit. You may hear of an accessory fruit referred to as a pseudocarp – a botanical term which means false fruit – which isn't accurate since accessory fruits definitely are fruits. They just aren't berries.
Seek out Botanical Berries
Now that you know what to look for in a true berry – and a number of not-so-true berries – you'll be able to identify them anywhere. Take a look around the next time you go grocery shopping. How are all of the berries classified in the produce section? Grocery store definitions don't always line up with botanical truths. Think about why that might be.
Once you're home, take a look at some of the fruits and vegetables you bought. Are any of them true berries, or other types of fruits labelled as berries? Cut open a pepo and a pome if you have them to see how their inside structures differ. And make sure to enjoy your tasty purchases, whether you put them in a pie or on the grill!
3 pounds eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch slices
3 tablespoons coarse salt, plus more for serving
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sprinkle eggplant slices with salt on both sides. Place in a colander set over a bowl; let stand 1 hour to drain. Discard liquid and rinse eggplant slices under cold running water. Place on several layers of paper towels, and press out the water.
Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Generously brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil and sprinkle with pepper. Place on grill and cook until browned (5 to 6 minutes). Flip eggplant slices and cook until browned on bottom. Serve hot, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart Living.
Berry Salad (Although you should probably call this “Accessory and Aggregate Fruit Salad”)
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 (16-ounce) container strawberries, hulled and chopped
1 (6-ounce) container blackberries
1 (6-ounce) container blueberries
1 (6-ounce) container raspberries
Crush mint and sugar in a mortar and pestle until well-blended (or place sugar and mint in a blender or food processor and pulse until well-blended). Place mint-sugar in a large bowl and add strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. Gently toss until evenly combined. Recipe courtesy of Whole Foods.
6. McGee, Harold (November 16, 2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Simon and Schuster. pp. 247–248. ISBN 0-684-80001-2.
7. S.J. Meades, D. Schnare, and K. Lawrence and C. Faulkner. (2004 onwards). Northern Ontario Plant Database Website. Version 1, January 2004. Algoma University College and Great Lakes Forestry Centre, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.
Edited by Carolyn Dallimore