Strawberries - a fruit from history!
Strawberries are a major commercial crop for much of Southern Australia. They are also an important crop in many other parts of the world and are tolerant of a wide range of climatic conditions. Strawberries harvests date back to Roman times and they have been in and out of fashion in different countries at different times since then. Strawberries were a popular fruit of the French aristocracy and were seen on coats of arms, in art and most forms of cooking. Indeed it is said the French name Frezier (and the anglicized Frazer) come from the French word fraise. There are species from North and South America, Asia and Europe each with their own particular characteristics. Some of these are still grown in different parts of the world but most commercial growers and home gardeners grow cultivars of the hybrid know as The Garden Strawberry.
The main commercial crop, the Garden Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) comes from northern France. It was first grown in Brittany around the middle of the 18th century. It is a hybrid of a Sth American species (F. chiloensis ssp chiloensis) and one from eastern Nth America (F. vriginiana). The former was grown for its flavour and the latter for its size. It is quite surprising to still be the hybrid that makes up the bulk of world wide production.
The American variety was sweet but small fruited and had been introduced to Europe in the late 16th century. The other parent was much larger and came from Chile. It was collected by a French Officer who had been sent to Sth America to chart the coastline and collect information for a possible military incursion against the Spanish colonies. He did these tasks well and wrote about the geography of the region. However it was his five plants of Fragaria chiloensis that have had the greatest impact on the world. His name was Amedeee Francois Frezier – a name family name with a connection to strawberries. He was an amateur botanist and found the Chilean fruit so large that he just had to bring them back to France. However he only brought female plants back with him and it was the accidental crossing of these with male Fragaria virginiana that produced the root of most modern cultivars.
Since then this humble but popular fruit has undergone extensive breeding, selection and genetic improvement. Most of this has been done by hobbyists and keen growers although the last fifty or so years has seen some very targeted breeding by various agricultural research organisations around the world. The breeding has targeted several key characteristics: fruit – size/flavour and color, pest resistance, disease resistance, fruit yield and fruiting time. There has been a fare degree of success in each of the characteristics with some excellent tasting fruit and some good cropping and pest resistant varieties.
Like most old world plants there are many anecdotes as to the origin of the common name. Two of the best are: The name came from the habit of growing the plants in a heavy straw mulch which kept the plants growing well and allowed the easy picking of clean fruit. The other plausible source is the way the fruit grows. It is said that it looks like the fruit is strewn among the leaves. Hence they were called strew berries or streoberrie (old English spelling).
One of the biggest plusses of strawberries is the delightful red color and super sweet and tasty fruit. However in the desire to produce more fruit at a cheaper price, that will also travel and hold better, much of what we now buy has lost those delightful characteristics that came from the original hybrid. Indeed like so many of our modern fruit and vegetables, what we buy in the supermarkets is substantially inferior in fragrance, colour and taste to the original or best modern hybrids. Many of the smaller commercial growers have some great varieties but they never make it to the supermarket shelves as they are not usually the cheapest. Also it is quite rare to see fruit and vegetables (with some exceptions like potatoes and apples) sold under their hybrid names.
Not only are Strawberries a popular fresh fruit they are also a favourite of the home gardener. They take up little space, are easy to grow and crop very well. The commercial growers need to treat their plants with a variety of curative and preventative chemicals to obtain maximum growth. For the home gardener very few chemicals are needed. This is because they are grown as individuals or in small clumps and thus dependent on much less in the way of heavy fungicides etc. All this makes them a rewarding plant for the family herb and veggie patch.
So to ensure you have good quality fruit you need to grow them yourself. There is a big market in strawberry plants with tens of thousands sold every year. Next month I will give some tips on growing the plants and some suggested cultivars. I will also give some recipes and tips on how to store and serve this special fruit. However it is still a good time to plant for late spring harvest.