My favorite fruit around this time of the month are strawberries. Not only are they beautiful and delicious, but a rich source of antioxidants. Just 1 cup of whole strawberries contains 84 grams of vitamin C. In fact strawberries have even more vitamin C than an orange. I was excited when I saw similar plants growing in the garden. Sometimes plants have a way of growing on their own especially in our garden. I am not alone. Not only is the U.S. the number one grower of strawberries, but also the largest consumer. In 2011, we consumed 1,312,960 tons of strawberries. According to the California Strawberry Commission, we consumed 1.7 billion pounds of strawberries each year. Wow, that is a lot of strawberries! The U.S. produces 20 percent of the worlds strawberries followed by Spain, Japan, Poland, Italy, the Korean Republic and China. Each state in the U.S. grows strawberries unique to that region of the country.
As I bent down to look at the small strawberries I realized they were awfully small and already ripe, but they were nothing like the usual strawberries I am used to seeing. I wondered if I had a different variety. It turns out that in our garden we have California strawberries, which is a type of groundcover that is very similar to a strawberry except that the fruit is so small about the size of a peanut, if not smaller. According to horticulturists, it is edible, but it did not taste anything like the strawberries we see in the stores.
Come to think of it, where did we get our strawberries? Why on earth are they called strawberries?
The history of the strawberry is actually quite funny. Strawberries grow on every continent except Africa and New Zealand. Although today they can be grown just about anywhere as long as the conditions are right. In other parts of the world, strawberries are not even red. Strawberries can actually be yellow or green. The red variety or genotype is what we are used to seeing in the strawberry fields, grocery stores and farmers market.
Although each region in the world grows its own variety, the strawberries that we enjoy today were bred by accident. Prior to the 1500s, wild strawberries were cultivated using cuttings removed from the forest. They were selected and grown in local gardens. Strawberries were mentioned even in Roman times and were seen in illuminated manuscripts throughout the 1700s. However, these varieties produced smaller fruit that were not always red. The strawberries from the northeastern U.S., in the state of Virginia produced the red color that we see today. The plants were taken back to Europe, in France around the 1500s where they were highly cultivated and consumed in the 16th century. French explorers discovered a different variety in Chile. A French spy stole the flowering plants from Chile and brought them back to France. The Chilean variety produced the larger berries than the Virginian type. However, the Chilean strawberries did not reproduce. It turns out that strawberries make either all male or female flowers. The Chilean type only made female flowers. One day, in a horticultural garden somewhere in France, a horticulturist put the Virginian variety next to the Chilean variety and they started to bear baby plants. The fruits of this plant were larger, redder and more abundant than their parent varieties. All the strawberries that we enjoy today originated from this delightful accident. You can plant the seeds from a strawberry and it will grow, but it takes a while, so farmers use cuttings or propagation via runners. In fact a strawberry contains approximately 200 seeds. Think of all the strawberry plants you can grow!
So how did a strawberry get its name? Well scientists are not certain. Possibly since strawberries are grown via runners, maybe straw is related to the way runners scatter around a mother plant, sort of like they are “strewn” about. Some hypothesize that maybe we call them strawberries because street vendors used to string berries on straws or hay and take them to market. In fact the Anglo-Saxon word for hay is “streaw”, which was ready for harvest around the same time that strawberries were usually picked, hence the connection between the two.
What we do know is that every region in the U.S. has their own special variety of strawberries and all are equally delicious. Some common varieties include the Chandler, Douglas, Heidi, Pajaro, Sequoia, and the Eversweet. Remember although strawberries stop ripening after they have been picked, they quickly spoil via mold. The best method to delay rotting is to wash your strawberries prior to eating. The removal of the stem and the core of strawberry, also known as hulling, should be done after washing. Otherwise, if you hull the strawberry and then wash it, the strawberry adsorbs water and this will have an impact on texture and most of all taste!