Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Few would argue that a sure sign of summer approaching is the first strawberries of the season. You may think "First strawberries? But aren't they in the store all the time?" That's where as modern people we forget that every fruit and vegetable at one time was only available fresh for a limited time each year.
With increasingly efficient shipping methods and produce bred to withstand the rigors of shipment, seasonal lines are blurred. With few exceptions, we can go to the store and buy fruit like strawberries at almost any time of year. Prices may vary, depending on the effort needed to get them to your local store, but they're there.
The strawberry plant was considered valuable for its medicinal uses long before people sought them purely for the sweet taste of the fruit. Ancient Romans believed the strawberry could cure a wide variety of afflictions, from inflammations, to gout, kidney stones, fever, or even halitosis. Native Americans used strawberries to fight colds and to clean teeth. They also mixed the berry's juice with water to soothe reddened eyes.
Wild strawberries tend to be very small, and some are not edible. For many years people believed that the berries were unsafe to eat, since they grew near the ground and were probably contaminated by local wildlife. Charles Linnaeus, who named the genus containing strawberries Fragaria, from the Latin "Fragra" meaning fragrant, put this superstition to rest by existing on a diet of only strawberries for a period of time.
The name 'strawberry' has more than one proposed origin. Some believe the name came from the common practice of mulching the berry plants with straw to protect them from the cold winter. Others argue that the name comes from the old Anglo-Saxon name for hay, "streaw", which was ready for harvest at the same time the berries were. When strawberries began to show up in London markets in 1831, it was common to buy them strung on a piece of straw much like beads on a string. Those residing in Italy, France, or Spain preferred the name "fraise" for the strawberry, which literally translated means "fragrant berry". In North America, the Narragansett Indians called them "wuttahimneash" or "heart berry".
The strawberry we consume today is actually a hybrid of two wild types, one native to North America (F. virginiana), and the other from South America (F. chiloensis). In the 1500's French Explorers brought F. virginiana back to France, since the early fruiting, flavor, and yields of "Virginia" strawberries from the New World vastly exceeded that of their European relatives. Nearly 200 years later, the South American strawberries may have never entered the scene if not for a French spy named Amedee Francois Frezier.
He noted exceptionally large strawberries growing in the Spanish holdings in Peru and Chile while he was secretly mapping the Spanish movements in the region. These were later named F. chiloensis, or Chilean strawberries. Of the plants he gathered, the only plants that survived the return trip to France were pistillate, meaning they only had female flowers and could not produce fruit on their own. They did cross pollinate and produce fruit, then new plants when planted alongside Virginia strawberries. The fruit from offspring of this cross was larger than that of either parent.
A botanist named Antoine Duchesne thought these superior fruits had a scent and flavor of pineapple, so he named this cross as a new species of strawberry, F. ananassa, from the French "ananas" meaning pineapple. This species is the origin of cultivated strawberries today.
The strawberry is unique not only in its history, but botanically as well. Strawberries are related to the rose, which may be surprising. Also, it is the only fruit which bears its seeds on the outside. The seeds need light rather than moisture to germinate. Most of the distribution of wild strawberries in nature is credited to birds eating the berries and dispersing the seed in their droppings.
Strawberries are a great small fruit to grow in your own yard. There are three basic types to choose from: June bearing, everbearing, or day neutral. June bearing produces one big crop of berries during a two to three week period in the spring. Everbearing produce three main crops in the spring, summer, and fall. Day neutral plants produce throughout the growing season. Day neutral and everbearing strawberries are smaller than June bearing types, but the plants take up less space, making them a good choice for small gardens. Day neutral strawberries are commonly grown in commercial production regions like California, to supply us with fresh strawberries most of the year.
Strawberries produce best in well drained, rich soil in full sun. Avoid planting strawberries where tomatoes, eggplant, or potatoes have been grown because is a risk of transmitting verticillium wilt, a serious strawberry disease.
There are several different ways to arrange the plants in your garden, depending on the variety chosen and space available. Proper maintenance is essential for good fruit production, and includes mulching with straw for winter protection, and thinning or otherwise renovating plantings as necessary. If growing your own is not an option, consider visiting a local pick-your-own strawberry farm to support local agriculture while enjoying fresh picked strawberries. For more detailed information on growing your own strawberries, check out U of I Extension's website www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/strawberries or find Illinois farms with strawberries for sale at the Illinois Farm Direct website, www.illinoisfarmdirect.org .