I love contributor Anthony Boutard's writing. Informative on an academic level, yet also engaging and full of humor, he brings the bugs, crops and creatures of his Ayers Creek Farm to life for those of us not so familiar with what's going on outside the city limits.
The first fruit to ripen are called the "King Berries" in the trade. Oddly patriarchal. After all, in languages where gender is indicated, fruit is feminine and they should be "Queen Berries." Regardless, these are the best berries for making preserves and any dish that needs the fruit to "set up."
The Chester Story
After the fruits ripened, the seeds were extracted and planted. Out of the many dozens of 1968 seedlings, three were noteworthy for their flavor, yield and thornless canes. Two would be released as named varieties, and a third wound up as the maternal parent of a named variety. Skirvin completed his masters and then moved on to Purdue where he studied geraniums and earned his PhD.
In 1973, the Southern Illinois Fruit Station was closed. Hull had the most promising plants moved to other experiment stations. The blackberries were sent to Professor Zych who ran the small fruits program at University of Illinois, Urbana. Zych died shortly afterwards. Fortunately, Skirvin (right) joined the small fruits program at Urbana and discovered that the blackberries he had bred many years earlier were still growing and producing fruit. He decided SIUS 68-6-17 was worth releasing as a named variety. As John Hull already has his name affixed to one of the 1968 progeny, 'Hull Thornless,' they decided to honor Professor Zych who acted as guardian of the berry. We were spared a berry named 'Zych Thornless' because the breeders had the good sense to use his first name, Chester. SIUS 68-6-17 was formally released in 1985 as 'Chester Thornless', and earned the honorific of "Outstanding Fruit Cultivar" in 2001.
Another selection from the 1968 breeding work of Hull and Skirvin was SIUS 68-2-5. That plant was pollinated with a blackberry from Arkansas, AK 545, and one of the resulting seedlings was released as 'Triple Crown' in 1996. Its flavor bears the distinct signature of berries from the Arkansas program.
Over the years, we have told the "Chester" story many times, each time from a different angle. Plant breeding is a craft unto its own, and we greatly admire people who explore the range of qualities available in a crop. The best breeders have this innate sense of how to guide and nudge the plant's unseen genetic qualities. Like other artists, they need patient patrons, as well as inspiration.