"Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did." Over 400 years later, this quote by 17th century English writer Dr. William Butler still reflects the high esteem most people hold for strawberry. Its fragrant aroma, delightful sweet flavor, and brilliant color make strawberry nearly irresistible. Whether eaten freshly sliced or prepared, the taste of strawberry makes it one of America's most beloved fruits and May is an ideal month to sample this year's harvest.
Throughout antiquity, strawberry has seen many different uses other than as a food source. For example, it was used as a symbol for Venus, the Goddess of Love, because of its heart shape and red color. The ancient Romans believed that strawberry had great medicinal value; they used it to alleviate the symptoms of a wide array of maladies ranging from melancholy to kidney stones. Medieval stone masons carved strawberry designs on altars and around the tops of pillars in churches and cathedrals to symbolize perfection and righteousness. In one of its most bizarre uses, Madame Tallien, a prominent figure at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, was famous for bathing in fresh strawberry juice. Reportedly, she used 22 pounds of strawberry fruit per bath.
Botanically, the "fruit" of the strawberry is not a fruit at all. The fleshy, edible part of the plant is the enlarged receptacle of the flower. The visible "seeds" that dot the surface of the strawberry actually are achenes. An achene is a type of dry fruit borne by some plants in nature where the ripened ovary contains but a single seed.
Many people assume the common name "strawberry" stems from the fact the plant is most often mulched with straw during the winter. Although the exact origin of its common name is uncertain, the name strawberry probably is a corruption of "strewn berry". The latter was an early designation for the plant which made reference to the fact that, as a strawberry plant produced runners and spread, its berries were strewn about the ground. Other sources suggest its name stems from the fact that English youth picked wild strawberries and sold them impaled on grass straws to the public.
Strawberry is a member of the Rosaceae (Rose) family and goes by the scientific name of Fragaria x ananassa. The letter "x" in its name indicates that strawberry is of hybrid origin and, in the case of strawberry, of two different species. The origin of that hybridization is very interesting and involves a Pan American union that occurred in Europe.
There are species of strawberry native to temperature regions all around the world. However, it was the union of two species native to the Americas that gave us our garden strawberry. Fragaria virginiana is a species of strawberry native to North America. It is characterized by its highly aromatic berries borne in great abundance but rather small in size. History records Fragaria virginiana was taken from the New World to France in 1624.
Fragaria chiloensis is a wild species of strawberry native to Chili. It bears berries the size of walnuts. It, too, was taken to France but in 1712. Both species were widely grown (presumably side-by-side) in European gardens. Chance seedlings representing crosses between the two species appeared. Some were vigorous, large-fruited and productive. These probably served as the ancestors of our modern garden strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa.
It was not until the late 1700's that garden strawberry made its way (back) to the Americas, and by 1825 strawberry production was well-established in the United States. One of the first popular cultivars was 'Hovey' introduced in 1838 by Charles Hovey, a fruit grower, plant breeder and writer from Massachusetts. Since that time, plant breeders made tremendous progress in improving the fruit quality and overall productivity of strawberries.
Modern strawberry cultivars can be classified into one of three different types: June-bearing, everbearing, or day-neutral. June-bearing cultivars respond to the short-days of spring by blooming and setting fruit. They bear their entire crop over a period of from two to three weeks. In contrast, everbearing cultivars produce two crops annually: one in the spring and a second, smaller crop in the fall. Day-neutral cultivars do not respond to the length of day versus length of night. They flower and set fruit whenever the temperature is between 35 and 85 degrees F. Unlike June-bearing types, day-neutral cultivars produce a crop the first year they are planted.
Strawberries are ideal for the home garden in that they do not require much space and (normally) produce good yields. They prefer a full-sun setting in a garden loam amended with organic matter. June bearing types should be spaced between about 18 inches apart in rows 24 inches wide. Allow about four feet between rows. Planting depth is very critical for success; cover the roots and only half of the crown of the transplant with soil.
For a complete discussion of strawberry culture including recommended cultivars, fertilizing, weed control, and insect and disease management, please refer to MU Extension Publication G6135 (Home Fruit Production: Strawberry Cultivars and Their Culture). The latter can be found at http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G6135
REVISED: April 30, 2012