“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”
– 17th century English writer Dr. William Butler, referring to the strawberry
This is the time of year that blesses us with delicious local strawberries. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have them growing in our own gardens. They are relished by most of us simply for their juicy burst of flavor. Additional benefits include being low in fat; rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants, fiber, folic acid and potassium; and having only 55 calories per cup. Strawberry plants are hardy in our area, they take up little growing space, and they require little care to produce large crops. No wonder they’re such a treasure!
Strawberries were known to people at least as early as the first century A.D. They were eaten by folks in ancient times but not in large quantities, since the early strawberries were both small and tough or lacking in flavor. Instead, these early berries were prized for their medicinal or ornamental qualities. Early Romans used them to treat numerous maladies, including melancholy, kidney stones, fainting, inflammations, fevers, throat infections, halitosis, gout, and various diseases of the blood, liver and spleen. Medieval masons carved strawberry designs into church structures to symbolize perfection and righteousness. Because of their red color and heart shape, they were a symbol for Venus, the Goddess of Love. In a practice continuing even today, Bavarian country folk tied baskets of wild strawberries to the horns of their cattle as an offering to elves. The elves had a passion for strawberries, so lore had it, and being kind to them would help produce healthy calves and a good supply of milk. On the other hand, here in the New World, Native Americans crushed strawberries, mixed them with cornmeal, and baked them into bread. Colonists’ adaptations of this bread probably led to the creation of our strawberry shortcake.
The origin of the name “strawberry” may be a corruption of “strewn berry,” relating to the plant’s widely-spread berries, the result of the plants’ growth by runners. Others surmise the name comes from the habit of English youth to pick wild strawberries and sell them impaled on grass straws. Regardless of the origin of the name, a strawberry is, in botanical terms, not really a fruit. The part of the plant we eat is actually the enlarged receptacle of the flower. What we think of as seeds are technically “achenes,” or a type of dry fruit in which the ripened ovary contains a single seed.
Native strawberries, members of the Rose family, grow in temperate regions all over the world. Our big, juicy strawberries, however, came about gradually as strawberry plants from two different areas of the western hemisphere were imported into Europe several centuries ago. Fragaria virginiana, a species native to North America having small but highly aromatic berries, were taken to France in 1624. Later, in 1712, Fragaria chiloensis, native to Chili, was also imported to France. This variety of strawberry produced berries the size of walnuts. As these two plants flourished in European gardens, hybrids of the two began to appear, some of which were vigorous, large-fruited and productive. These new varieties served as the ancestors to all of today’s strawberries, Fragaria x ananassa cultivars, in which the “x” denotes the original hybridization.
Our modern varieties include three different types of plants: June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral. June-bearing varieties are the most commonly planted and most productive type. They develop flower buds in late summer and early fall, with flowering the following spring and ripening of the berries usually in June. These types of strawberries produce runners, creating new plants, during their vegetative growth in the summer.
Everbearing strawberries, contrary to the name, produce crops in late spring and late summer, with little flowering in between. These plants produce few runners and tend to form crowns of foliage. Day-neutral varieties are similar to everbearing plants. They are an improvement on everbearing strawberries, in that they do indeed produce berries throughout the growing season, although they are not very productive in hot weather. Because we’re writing for the month of June when our June-bearing strawberries are ripening and will be ready to pick, we will focus on them in the rest of this article. Readers who want more information about everbearing and day-neutral strawberry varieties and culture can find a wealth of information in the articles listed in the resources below.
What about growing strawberries in our own gardens? We’re past the time (March and early April) when new plots can be started, and berry harvest is upon us. When picking strawberries, choose only those that are fully ripe; strawberries do not ripen further once off the vine. Pinch them off the vines with a portion of stem attached. Any berries that escape immediate consumption should be stored unwashed in the refrigerator. If it is your own berry patch, you should pick berries at least every other day. While picking, be sure to also remove any overripe or diseased berries to lessen the chance of inviting or spreading disease.
Immediately after you harvest the last berries, experts recommend that you renovate your plants. This process, fully described in the resource articles, involves mowing down and discarding all the vegetation, removing older plants and unneeded runners, narrowing rows, adding fertilizer, and assuring adequate water for the remainder of the season. This allows the buds for next year’s strawberries to develop before the plants go dormant for the winter. Then, in late fall, mulch needs to be added to protect the plants from severe weather, and from heaving with repeated thawing and freezing in early spring. Clean, weed-free straw, or chopped cornstalks are good choices for mulch. Leaves and grass-clippings are not recommended, because these materials tend to mat together in layers, allowing ice to form in the spaces between the layers. Also, leaf mulch may actually damage the plants by trapping excess moisture underneath it.
Information for preparing a new strawberry bed, to be done in late summer, and planting, to be done in March or early April, are also well-described in the resources.
Again, the articles cited can provide more information than space allows here.
During the month of June, the Arboretum’s Children’s Garden strawberry plants will have fruit! So, be sure to stop by the gardens this month to see the beauty, and enjoy a few freshly picked strawberries – yum!
by Rita Lynn, with some additional notes from Libby Carter
HISTORY AND BACKGROUND INFORMATION
“History of the Strawberry,” by Vern Grubinger, www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/factsheets/strawberryhistory.html
“Strawberry: A Brief History,” by David Trinklein, http://ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2012/5/Strawberry-A-Brief-History/
“Strawberries & More: History and Lore,” http://extension.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm
“Growing Strawberries in the Home Garden,” https://store.extension.iastate.edu/ProductList?Keyword=strawberries
“Yard and Garden: Planting Strawberries,” www.extension.iastate.edu/article/yard-and-garden-growing-strawberries
“Yard and Garden: Prepare Strawberry Plants for Winter,” www.extension.iastate.edu/article/yard-and-garden-prepare-strawberry-plants-winter
“Growing Strawberries,” by Bruce Bordelon, www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-46.pdf
“Strawberries & More: Growing Strawberries,” http://extension.illinois.edu/strawberries/growing.cfm