Grubinger: Strawberry History

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(Host) As strawberry season is winding down on Vermont farms,
commentator Vern Grubinger – vegetable and berry specialist for UVM
extension – is thinking about how the relatively large and tasty fruit
we love to eat today was developed from its wild ancestors.

Strawberries are one of the tastiest local fruits, and they have a
delicious history, too. The large berries we enjoy today are a product
of breeding, luck, and trans-Atlantic travel.

The earliest
mention of strawberries was in Roman poetry, as a wildflower. People did
eat wild strawberries in ancient times, but not in large quantities
since the fruits were small or lacked flavor. In the 1500’s there were
two strawberry species transplanted from the wild and cultivated in
European gardens: the wood strawberry and the musky strawberry.

in the 1600’s, the Virginia strawberry of North America reached Europe,
though it wasn’t widely grown until the 1700’s in England. It was
larger and hardier than the European species but not as flavorful.
Another species of strawberry came to Europe in 1714. A French spy and
amateur botanist imported the Chilean strawberry from South America. It
had something all the other species lacked: size. But it wasn’t very
hardy; it only grew well in coastal climates.

These two New
World species of strawberries crossed the Atlantic only to be crossed
themselves, with each other, giving rise to the modern strawberry. It
was the French who first accidentally pollinated the Chilean strawberry
with the Virginia strawberry when male Chilean plants were grown
alongside female Virginian plants. At that time, separate male plants
were required for the female plants to set fruit.

gardeners picked up on the French discovery and made many different
crosses, creating thirty varieties of this new species of strawberry.

it wasn’t until 1858 that the first strawberry really like the ones we
grow today was developed. Named Wilson, it was hardy, large and
flavorful. In addition, it had perfect flowers with both male and female
parts, so every plant set fruit. With the arrival of Wilson, the U.S.
strawberry industry increased 50-fold, to a hundred thousand acres.

1920 strawberry breeding was done by growers, but since then most new
varieties have been developed by breeders at federal or state experiment
stations. One such breeder was George M. Darrow, a Vermonter who worked
for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Renowned as a small fruit
expert, he improved the disease resistance of strawberries and developed
two dozen varieties, some of which were widely used to breed the fruits
we eat today.

In the Northeast, strawberry acreage isn’t large,
but the crop is early in the season and has a high value per acre,
making it important to many diversified farms. The 2007 Census of
Agriculture counted 122 farms with 185 acres of strawberries in Vermont.
A typical yield is six thousand pounds an acre, so more than a million
pounds of Vermont berries must be picked and eaten in a relatively short
time. Nationally, the vast majority of the 3 billion pounds of berries
grown each year comes from specialized farms in California, with Florida
a distant second. Of course, those berries have been bred to tolerate
shipping and they can’t match our local berries for flavor.

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