Today’s strawberry, Fragaria ananassa, with its large, practically perfect berries is the culmination of selective breeding going back centuries to when strawberries were tiny, rare, and found only at the peak of summer.
Strawberries are mentioned in works by Virgil and Ovid, yet they made no appearance in ancient Roman cookbooks. By the 14th century, the tiny European wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was being cultivated in France, Italy, and England. Meanwhile, throughout North America, tribes such as the Chippewa and the Mescalero Apache used strawberries. One method was to add them to cornbread—the future strawberry shortcake.
In the early 1600s, English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, found abundant wild strawberries underfoot—“much fairer and more sweete than ours.” The subsequent arrival in Europe of the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria americana) marked the beginning of cross-breeding attempts that would ultimately bring us the precursor to the modern berry about 150 years later, according to George M. Darrow’s The Strawberry: History, Breeding, and Physiology.
In 1714, a French explorer, spy, mapmaker, and engineer named Amédée François Frézier brought a larger New World strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) to France from Chile, where the natives had cultivated it. “There they plant whole fields, with a sort of strawberry rushes, differing from ours, in that the leaves are rounder, thicker, and more downy. The fruit is generally as big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s egg, of a whitish red, and somewhat less delicious of taste than our wood strawberries,” wrote Frézier, whose name comes from the French word for strawberry, fraise. Back in France, he and other botanical experimenters discovered they could cross it with the Virginia variety, leading to the birth of the modern strawberry. French royalty took up the new strawberry ingénue with the aplomb and opulence that were hallmarks of their regime. King Louis XV planted blocks of strawberries, and court ladies bathed in gallons of the crushed fruit.
Strawberry breeding and cultivation continued to evolve in France, England, and the U.S. By the 1830s, strawberries sold in New York City were grown in the farmlands of Hackensack, New Jersey, and brought over on sailing sloops “when wind and tide permitted.” The season lasted about three weeks, and a half a pint of berries cost around 7 cents.
The ensuing years have been a steady race to develop the best, biggest, juiciest, and most shippable strawberries that appeal to popular taste. The result is a berry well removed from the hardy strawberry fields of colonial Virginia where crops were so resilient they would return again and again to areas where Native Americans had burned the fields after harvesting corn and colonists had chopped down the forests to build houses.
Everyone loves strawberries, including pests, weeds, and fungi. The modern cultivated strawberry grows in pampered isolation. Farmers plant the berries in a little hole on top of sculpted mounds of earth covered in cloth or plastic to suppress any nearby weeds. The use of chemicals in farming began as early as 1880. Delicate strawberries have prospered; production has increased 300 percent since 1960.
Organic strawberries are grown without chemical pesticides or herbicides. Instead, farmers use soil solarization (exposing the soil to heat and sun to kill pathogens) and crop rotation to manage the environment for the strawberries (see The FruitGuys Almanac “How Broccoli Will Save Strawberries: Organic Farming Practices Leave Pesticides Aside”). Organic practices take more effort and result in slightly smaller harvests than conventional pesticide production.
Strawberries are so delicate they must be handpicked. They are vulnerable to cold and weather damage—even raindrops can bruise them. New varieties continue to be developed to suit our favor (and flavor); there are no heirloom strawberry varieties per se—just ones no longer in vogue.
Note: The FruitGuys delivers only organic strawberries and always has since its founding in 1998.
Heidi Lewis writes about farms, bees, and fruit from her home in Sonoma County, CA. She’s been with The FruitGuys since they were FruitKids.