Strawberries mean summer, sunshine, Wimbledon and cream. Don’t they? Childhood memories equate strawberries with the Strawberry Fayre in summer, and blackberries with the Blackberry Carnival in autumn. Today, fruit remains available on supermarket shelves outside its traditional season.
Family tradition means that strawberries are regularly eaten as a Christmas dessert by those who, either do not like or cannot eat the gluten and/or dairy options. Yet, the fragrance and flavour of strawberries ripened in the summer sun remains matchless. Unlike many other fruits, strawberries do not continue to ripen after they are picked.
Unique Fruit Structure
The strawberry is known as an accessory fruit. Most fruits protect their seeds inside. Strawberries bear their seeds on the outside. Therefore, the strawberry is not technically a berry at all.
Plant Family and Classification
Strawberries are in the Rosaceae or Rose family. Kew’s Plants of the World acknowledges that genus name changes from Fragaria to Potentilla are unpopular as they are in such common usage. Most resources seem to keep to Fragaria other than the more recent Kew publication. This causes issues in tracing and reading about the history and hybridisation of strawberries. The strawberry names in usage are:
- Fragaria vesca > Potentilla vesca > Wild/Woodland Strawberry
- Fragaria moschata > Potentilla moschata > Hautbois Strawberry
- Fragaria virginiana > Potentilla virginiana > Virginian Strawberry
- Fragaria chiloensis > Potentilla chiloensis > Chilean Strawberry
- Fragaria x ananassa > Potentilla x ananassa > Common/Garden Strawberry
The Wild Strawberry is found on base-rich soils in woodland, scrub, hedge banks and rough grassland throughout the British Isles and the majority of Europe. This native fruit is smaller and not as juicy as modern cultivated strawberries. The yield is considered too low to bother cultivating.
Our native wild strawberries were supplanted in British affections by the arrival of the the wild Hautbois or Moschatel Strawberries from Scandinavia, Western Russia and Central Europe. They were first mentioned in 1576. They offered a more intense flavour and a musky scent, although the yield was reduced by comparison.
The next arrival on British shores was the Virginian Strawberry in the 1620s. It was sent back from New England by the first European settlers. It was a little bigger than existing British strawberries, but it offered much more flavour. It resulted in several cultivars, the best-known being Grove End Scarlet.
The Strawberry saga takes a colourful turn with the chance discovery by a French spy in Spanish-occupied Chile. Amédée-François Frézier discovered the much larger, native Chilean strawberry there. He sailed back to France with cuttings, using his own water rations to keep them alive. Only 5 female plants survived the 6-month voyage. They could only be propagated from cuttings.
Chilean and Virginian Strawberries were grown near each other by French nurserymen. They discovered that the Chilean Strawberries began setting fertile seed. The hybrids turned out to be stronger and more flavoursome than their wild North and South American parents.
The French Revolution saw the British take over the hybridisation of strawberries. Of the hundreds of cultivars bred in Victorian times, only one survives today: Royal Sovereign of 1892, bred by Thomas Laxton of Bedford (1830-90). He famously worked and corresponded on plant experiments with Charles Darwin.
Cultural and Dietary Importance
Jam-making was important to Victorians, because it was impossible to keep fresh fruit for any length of time. Strawberries are rich in Vitamin C. Jam provided a cheap, energy-rich food for the poor throughout the year.
Fruit has played an important role in British culture from Medieval times. Railways reduced the time-to-market and increased the availability of fresh, seasonal fruit.
Exotic fruit was seen as a status symbol. Access to pineapple was considered the ultimate status symbol. Thus, the Garden Strawberry’s Latin name refers to its much revered pineapple flavour (ananassa).
Pest and Diseases
Few of the old cultivars remain. Despite the British love of strawberries, they are prone to a variety of pests and diseases. They easily become stressed by variations and extremes in weather conditions. The Nuclear Stock Association in Kent plays a role in trying to ensure a healthy supply of stock to the fruit propagation industry. It is not unusual for new strawberry varieties to be replaced every 2-3 years. Greater disease resistance is sought in strawberries, as one of our favourite fruits.
Today’s cultivars are not as strictly seasonal as the strawberries of the past. They are grown from root stock rather than seed and fall into two categories:
- ever-bearing or perpetual (all year-round crops)
- day neutral (continuous production from summer into autumn).
Strawberries are regarded as one of the best crops for hydroponics. They can be grown with LED lighting. They need little root space and can produce a high yield in a small, vertical space. Nonetheless, there are ongoing concerns about pests, diseases, the use of pesticides and run-off.
Strawberries can be grown in pots, towers and hanging baskets in a relatively small space on a balcony or patio. Children particularly enjoy growing their own strawberries. We tried Hapil and Cambridge Favourite with success on our sun-trap patio. The best results came from growing Elsanta, a mid-summer, self-fertile variety with good disease resistance. It is hard to give details on the yield as little fingers usually picked the ripe fruit to eat before any count was possible! You cannot beat the delicious sweetness of sun-ripened fruit.
Stocks, Christopher. 2008. Forgotten Fruits. A guide to Britain’s traditional fruit and vegetables. Random House Books.
© Karen Netto (Andrews)
These pages illustrate my love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. I love sharing. This blog is a showcase for my own photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics.
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