Food & Drink 

What's that mushroom doing in my fruit salad?

By Glenda Bartosh

We all know the uncle who delivers the conversation stopper at the dining table when sliced tomatoes are served. He looks the kids dead in the eyeballs and says, “Hey, Helen, what the heck are ya doing serving fruit with the roast beef?” Amidst much giggling and chortling, Uncle Buncle then goes on to insist that tomatoes are really a fruit, not a vegetable, while all the kids are going, “Nah, no way!”

I kind of felt like one of those kids again, pinned down by Uncle Buncle’s stare, when I researched strawberries for last week’s column and found out that the achenes (pronounced ay-keens, accent on the second syllable) — the tiny dark flecks most of us think of as the seeds that dot the surface of the strawberry — are really the fruit.

An achene is a small, dry, indehiscent one-seeded fruit with a thin wall. “Indehiscent” means it does not open on its own at maturity (like some people’s minds I know — sorry), as in the well-sealed, dark-coloured achene of a sunflower.

A fruit, by stripped-down definition, is the ripened ovary of a plant. Depending on which dictionary you consult, it must contain the seeds of the plant, it can include the seeds of the plant (but then how do we classify zucchinis, or squash? Read on…), and it often includes the sweet fleshy parts we normally associate with fruits. We have come by custom, not necessarily fact, to call any juicy, sweet, fleshy bits associated with achenes the fruit — including nuts and strawberries — and conveniently overlook the complex botany of the matter.

But just to complicate things a little more, strawberries, as well as blackberries and raspberries, are really not berries at all; rather, they are brambles. Brambles are aggregate composites of fruits, or a lot of little fruits bunched together. That’s right, each one of those teeny juicy sacs — called “drupelets” (now there’s a good name to insult someone with) — that make up a single raspberry is actually a single fruit that is part of a larger structure called a “bramble”.

This term was much more familiar to people from the Old World and those from a few generations back. “Don’t get caught in the brambleberry bushes!” was a familiar warning to all and sundry out picking wild berries. The term “brambleberry” is still used once in a while, but mainly when referring to blackberries. Personally I always preferred the made-up “beebleberry bushes”, which first came into my consciousness reading a Little Lulu comic book. They continue to appear sporadically in other invented worlds as a kind of trope for a silly, invented place, but don’t ask me what they taste or look like.

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