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Dec. 20, 2019
By Fred MillerU of A System Division of Agriculture@AgNews479
Download MS Word version
Download PHOTOS of Ponca: https://flic.kr/p/2i2XTTv and https://flic.kr/p/2i2Ur9k
CLARKSVILLE, Ark. — Ponca, a new blackberry variety from the University of Arkansas
System Division of Agriculture, offers the pinnacle of flavor from one of the world’s
leading public blackberry breeding programs.
Ponca is the 20th blackberry from the fruit breeding program of the division’s Arkansas
Agricultural Experiment Station, said John R. Clark, fruit breeder and Distinguished
Professor of horticulture for the Division of Agriculture and the University of Arkansas’
Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.
“This is about as exciting as anything I’ve ever had my hands on,” Clark said. “When
I noticed how good Ponca tasted, I thought that if Ponca was someone’s first blackberry,
it would change their entire perception of what a blackberry is.
“It’s our highest achievement for a sweet, enjoyable berry,” he said.
Taming the Wild Berry
When the fruit breeding program was established by Dr. James N. Moore in 1964, Clark
said, work on blackberries was aimed at taming a wild fruit. Moore wanted blackberries
without thorns, and he began that effort by selecting and breeding for large berry
size, plant growth traits, consistent berry production, disease resistance and other
desirable agronomic traits.
By the time Moore retired and Clark took over the breeding program, Arkansas blackberries
had developed from a wild berry that grew in tangled vines on the ground to cultivated
crop plant with erect canes, increasingly reliable fruit production with large berries
and improved resistance to common Arkansas plant diseases.
Moore’s and Clark’s collaboration also led to the first erect-caned thornless blackberry
plants and the first steps toward something new — primocane-fruiting blackberries
that flowered and fruited on first-year canes, extending the fruiting season to as
late as frost.
With a solid foundation of domesticated and productive blackberry varieties and breeding
lines established, Clark turned his attention toward improving flavor.
Native blackberries tended to be tart because of high acidity, Clark said, and the
early varieties from the breeding program also tended to be tart. It was the flavor
most Arkansans were accustomed to and Moore preferred the tart flavor.
Finding the Sweet Spot
But Clark wanted a sweeter berry and began breeding for reduced acidity, to reduce
tartness, and increased sugars to improve sweetness. He also began to seek flavor
traits that are a little more ephemeral — aromatics.
“Sweetness or tartness is the first thing you notice when you bite into a blackberry,”
Clark said. “But, as you chew, other fruity flavors begin to emerge. Those are the
Aromatics are a quality of fruit chemistry, Clark said, and they are harder to pin
down because they are a product not only of genetics, but also of environment. He
has found that Arkansas blackberries grown in other states and other countries often
have flavor qualities he doesn’t find at home.
And considering that Division of Agriculture blackberries are grown on every continent
but Antarctica, Clark said, that’s a broad range of flavor potentials.
Osage and Caddo blackberries were the first varieties to reflect that greater emphasis
on sweetness, Clark said, and Ponca has raised the flavor bar to a new level.
Clark’s opinion of Ponca’s superb flavor is born out by both anecdotal and scientific
Berry growers, breeders and enthusiasts from across the United States and around the
world regularly trek to the Division of Agriculture’s Fruit Research Station north
of Clarksville to see what Clark is up to. He relishes leading visitors through the
rows of blackberry plants standing on the lush, rolling hills of the station, orating
on the heredities, traits and characters of established blackberry varieties and advanced
And tasting. Visitors pluck the plump berries and get a mouthful of the results coming
out of the Arkansas breeding program, and learn the names if they have them, or the
number designations that identify advanced breeding lines that may be headed toward
“I’ve had more people remember A-2538T (Ponca’s breeding line designation) than any
other to come out of the program,” Clark said. “They remember that flavor.”
Renee Threlfall, division research scientist in the department of food science, conducted
a consumer sensory analysis of Ponca, Caddo, Natchez, Osage, Ouachita and Prime-Ark®
Traveler, all blackberries from the Division of Agriculture breeding program. The
berries were evaluated by a panel of 81 consumers for shape, size, overall appearance
Every blackberry in the test ranked high for sweetness, overall flavor and overall
impression, Threlfall said, and Ponca ranked highest overall.
Ponca is floricane-fruiting, producing flowers and fruit on second-year canes, Clark
said. It is thornless with erect canes. Berries average 6.8 grams, slightly larger
than Osage and nearly the same as Ouachita. The berries’ firmness is rated higher
than Caddo and Osage and maintains firmness in rainy conditions.
First harvest, Clark said, is in early June at the Fruit Research Station, same as
Natchez, two to four days before Caddo and Osage and seven days before Ouachita.
Clark said Ponca can produce a secondary bud crop that begins ripening 14 to 20 days
after the first harvest of the primary crop, providing some recovery if cold injury
occurs during spring freezes.
Postharvest storage potential has been comparable to Caddo, Ouachita and Osage, Clark
said. Red drupelet reversion is low, similar to Osage and less than Natchez. Leakage
from the berries was noted to be higher than other cultivars in some years, particularly
when the berries are stored more than seven days. But its excellent sweet flavor is
retained in storage, he said.
“Ponca plants have exhibited very good health with consistently healthy floricane
leaves,” Clark said. “This contributes to its sweet flavor. It has shown to be disease-free,
showing no orange rust or anthracnose and very limited cane or leaf rust in all our
Clark said winter hardiness has been comparable to Ouachita and has shown very little
injury to a low of 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Ponca has an interesting growth habit that offers plant management advantages, Clark
said. The primocanes of most blackberry varieties tend to grow taller than the floricanes,
he said, and require “tipping” prior to or during harvest. The primocanes require
tipping to control growth and create the hedgerow of canes.
The primocanes on Ponca have shortened internodes — the length of stem between the
nodes where the leaves grow out. As a result, Clark said, the primocanes tend to not
grow taller than the floricanes until after harvest. It allows growers to delay tipping
the canes until after harvest is completed.
Ponca is available to licensed propagators now, Clark said. Non-exclusive licenses
are available in the United States. For information, contact Cheryl Nimmo at 479-575-3953,
or by email at email@example.com.
To learn more about Division of Agriculture fruit breeding and research, visit the
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uark.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch and Instagram at ArkAgResearch.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen
agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption
of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative
Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work
within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas
System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension
and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity,
sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran
status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative
Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
Media Contact: Fred MillerU of A System Division of AgricultureArkansas Agricultural Experiment Station(479) firstname.lastname@example.org