Baxter County Master Gardener Program • University of Arkansas System • Division of Agriculture • © 2013 BCMG
One of the most glorious treats of the spring garden must be a fresh bowl of strawberries. In our modern age of global marketing, strawberries are never out of season in the grocery stores, but they never taste the same as those picked fresh from the garden. Let us explore the history of this luscious fruit.
The modern strawberry is an evergreen herbaceous perennial of the rose family. Under the short days of winter and spring, it grows as a single crown with large, bright green compound leaves. The white, five-petaled flowers appear in mid-spring and open over a three- to four-week period. The large, luscious berries ripen about a month after flowering. When days get long in summer, strawberries produce runners that strew new plantlets across the garden bed. The word “strawberry” is thought to have possibly been derived from “strew berry,” a descriptive name for the plant.
Strawberries have always been enjoyed as a delectable spring treat. Europeans gathered their wild species, Fragaria vesca, from ancient times and eventually selected forms that they grew in their gardens. Native Americans too gathered and probably grew strawberries, but they used F. virginiana. Both of these species are flavorful - at least if a flavorful clone is grown - but are they ever small, with fruit not much bigger than the tip of my pinkie finger.
Military intrigue lead to the development of the modern strawberry. In 1714, Amedee Frezier, a French military engineer and rumored spy for Louis XIV, was secretly mapping the Chilean coast around Concepcion when he came upon a strawberry growing in the dunes. He described them as “big as a walnut and sometimes as a hen’s egg…” but with an inferior taste to the European species. He potted some plants up and six of them survived the six-month-long journey back to France. Eventually this species was given the name F. chiloensis.
Over the next couple decades, European gardeners and bees did what comes naturally to them. By 1766, it was recognized that the two American species had hybridized and created a large-fruited, deep red cross that combined the fruit size of the Chilean species with the deep red color and flavorful taste of the Virginia species. To an early taste-tester, these hybrids reminded him or her of the sweetness of pineapples, so when botanists got around to assigning it a name they called it F. x ananassa, after the Latin name for pineapple.
By the early 19th century, the hybrids began to displace their smaller, wild cousins in gardens. In a nursery list published in 1829, there were 28 kinds listed; by 1832 the number had jumped to 112. By 1877, more than 800 cultivars were described
Modern strawberry clones come in two broad categories: the spring-bearing and the so-called everbearing clones. The spring-bearing kinds flower in mid-spring and set one crop of fruit, whereas the everbearing kinds produce a few flowers throughout the season and can, if grown in a properly cool climate, produce fruit on and off during the summer. Commercial growers take advantage of both types and an array of growing conditions, including greenhouse production, to provide fresh fruit throughout the year.
Strawberries do best in a fertile, well-drained garden soil that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight. Spring plantings will flower and fruit the following spring. Most gardeners use what is called the “matted bed system,” which essentially is a densely planted bed 3 to 4 feet wide and as long as your craving for strawberries requires. In the summer, the old crowns are removed and younger crowns are allowed to fill in the space in the bed. If attention to weed control is maintained, beds can usually remain in production three or four years. Though there are a host of strawberry pest problems, they are fairly easy to grow, and most home gardeners will be rewarded for their efforts.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - May 7, 2010