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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Strawberries-- Fragaria spp.

Along with other early spring crops like broccoli, cabbage and lettuce, it is a great time of year to plant some strawberries in your home garden. They are an especially kid-friendly crop to grow at home. Once my niece and later my son found the strawberries in our garden, none have made it into the house. They all get consumed on site!

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 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 in order 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 or to find Illinois farms with strawberries for sale, check out U of I Extension's website

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