If June has a flavor, it must be strawberry: sweet, tangy, fragrant and warm from the sun. No matter what the calendar says, when pick-your-own signs appear along the road, when pint boxes of local berries make their appearance at the farmers’ markets, when you stop weeding to pop that first crimson gem into your mouth, you know summer has arrived.
Now is the time for strawberry shortcake drenched with heavy cream, homemade smoothies, fresh strawberry pie mounded halfway to the clouds, berries sliced into yogurt or on breakfast cereal, fresh sauce over ice cream, homemade jams and jellies, and the uncounted berries that never make it into the gathering bowl — “One for the bowl, one for me; two for the bowl, one, two for me; three for the bowl, … .”
A few bits of trivia
The strawberry is interesting because it bears its fruit (the seeds) on the outside of the fleshy receptacle that we tend to equate to the fruit. On average, 200 seeds stud each berry. About 53 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds choose strawberries as their favorite fruit, over apples, oranges and bananas combined. Strawberries are grown in all 50 states and every Canadian province. The U.S. produces more than a million tons of strawberries each year.
Botanically speaking, strawberries are “forbs,” flowering plants that do not get woody as they age — they also belong to the rose family. A strawberry plant will form a crown, or compact stem, surrounded by a whorl of leaves, blossom stems and fibrous roots. Because they are perennial, they bear fruit for several years before production fades. Every year, they send out runners, horizontal stems that stretch across the soil, taking root and forming daughter plants as far as 2 feet from the mother plant.
Botanists have named the garden strawberry Fragaria x ananassa. Fragaria refers to that deliciously overwhelming fragrance, strongest in the alpine strawberry (F. vesca) and enough to make you swoon. The ‘x’ indicates that the garden strawberry is a hybrid of two species, the Virginian (F. virginiana) and Chilean (F. chiloensis) strawberries. Ananassa means “pineapple,” so someone apparently thought the two tasted similar at some point.
In the wild
Wild strawberries have been around for a long time. The first written record of them comes to us via Ancient Rome, as mentioned by Roman writers Pliny and Ovid. Apparently, Romans gathered them wild and used them as medicine. These wild berries were alpine, musk (F. moschata) and green (F. viridis) strawberries, ranging naturally across the whole of Europe and into Central Asia.
The strawberry found a home in French and English gardens in the 14th century; even then, gardeners cultivated them in only the loosest sense. Gardeners typically gathered wild plants from the woods and transplanted them to gardens. When these wildlings inevitably declined, they would be replaced with more gathered from the wild.
Two centuries later, New World explorers brought many exciting treasures back to Europe, among them Virginian and Chilean strawberries. No one could guess that these two plants — one from North America and the other from South America — would contain the future of the strawberry.
Unlike many cultivated plants, the origin of garden strawberries has not been lost to history. Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, a self-taught French botanist, began working with alpine and musk strawberries in the 1760s, exploring the mysteries of pollination and plant sexes. His work was also the first effort to improve the strawberry. When the resulting offspring proved to be less than exciting, he turned his efforts to other, more exotic material. By crossing the Chilean and Virginian strawberries, he developed what we know today as the June-bearing garden strawberry, large fruited and fragrant, and vastly removed from the tiny, fingernail-sized Old World berries. The new berry’s variable genetics provided room for improvement, and its eagerness to produce runners made propagation of new varieties simple and rapid. Strawberries have been bred to crop in spring and fall (everbearing), and throughout the season (day neutral). For many gardeners, however, June-bearing strawberries are what make June special.
Strawberries make themselves right at home in the garden and provide excellent quality fruit for little effort. This is great news; store-bought strawberries have been ranked second highest in pesticide contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental watchdog organization.
Strawberries prefer light, well-drained sandy soil with high levels of organic material, but will grow and produce well in less than ideal conditions, as long as they have at least eight to 10 hours of sunlight each day, most of that time preferably in the morning. They benefit from a light mulch of straw or fall leaves, which help to protect the berries from dirt and reduce the spread of diseases.
Extension services recommend a “matted-row” system of planting. Plants are spaced 2 feet apart in rows set at 4-foot centers. As runners are formed, they fill in the spaces between plants, creating a web or mat of plants. A 11⁄2- to 2-foot-wide clear lane is maintained between rows.
Through the years, gardeners have dreamed up some interesting and unusual devices to help with growing strawberries, from stacked raised-bed pyramids and strawberry pots to clay tile groundcovers and vase-shaped pottery collars. Inventive gardeners even use hanging baskets and rain gutters to grow their berries suspended in midair, eliminating sore backs and stooping when harvesting the fruit.
Varieties to grow
However you choose to grow strawberries, there are many different varieties to consider, some of them antique. Some cultivars do better than others in different regions; a berry that grows well and ripens in Alaska could hardly be expected to perform in Florida’s heat and humidity. Contact your state’s extension office or a local farm for recommendations tailored to your region.
Antique fruit varieties are often difficult to find, unlike heirloom vegetables. Older varieties vanish quickly after being replaced, unless individuals value them enough to keep growing them. When you find the right variety and taste that first sample, it is worth every effort. Consider the following antique cultivars for your garden.
Dunlap, sometimes called Senator Dunlap, was once cultivated widely across the Plains states and upper Mississippi Valley. It handles drought well and exhibits good hardiness, growing well into Montana. The fruits are described as small to medium with a rich red hue, soft and sub acid; an excellent variety for home and local markets.
In 1949, Dr. E.M. Henry introduced the Tennessee Beauty, a large, deep-red, sweet berry. Tennessee Beauty produces over a longer season than most, although berry size does drop off by the season’s end. It grows well across the Deep South, and even reaches into the southern part of New England. Provided with winter protection, it can be grown to USDA Zone 4.
Alex Wenger, a member of the Backyard Fruit Growers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a strawberry aficionado, offers the following recommendations:
Sparkle, released in 1942, is a great mid- to late-season variety, and it became a major commercial variety in the Northeast. It has good disease-resistance, produces smaller, softer fruit than modern shipping varieties, and offers lots of flavor.
Not exactly antique, Mara des Bois is a modern variety developed in France in the early 1990s, specifically for a stronger aroma and flavor than the wild species. It has smaller fruit as a result, and is everbearing.
The Marshall strawberry may very well be one of the more expensive varieties available to home growers, at $30 a plant. Marshall’s champion, Leah Gauthier, maintains that it’s worth every penny, because it’s rich in both flavor and history.
“What I first fell in love with about Marshall was the story,” she writes. “A random hybrid found by the roadside in Marshfield, Massachusetts, that grew to be the darling of both East and West Coast growers. Favored by James Beard and his mother to be the ‘tastiest strawberry in America,’ served to royalty, and then all but disappeared. Marshall’s story is by now a familiar storyline suffered by many other food plants shoved out of fashion during the industrialization of agriculture. But strawberries are sexy! I fell hard again for the complex flavor of these bright red berries – herbal, fruity, ever so slightly vegetal, and unforgettable.”
For a taste of classical strawberries, consider these selections: Alexandria and Yellow Wonder for alpines, Profumata di Tortuna and Capron for musk, and Intensity and Little Scarlet for Virginian strawberries.
Strawberries offer a simple and quick way to add fruit to your garden, requiring little care and typically producing a crop within a year of planting. Besides, June just wouldn’t be the same without strawberries. Why not add some to your garden this year?
What’s In a Name?
While many gardeners are familiar with the term “heirloom,” they may not realize what that means, or why it really does not fit fruit varieties. Part of the reason is because “heirloom” is not a precise definition.
Most heirloom growers recognize that heirlooms are old varieties, but how old is old? Some authorities suggest that varieties available before 1951 can be considered heirloom, while others use 1945 as a cutoff date. Still others suggest a rolling divider of 50 or 75 years.
All agree on one thing: Heirloom varieties must be open-pollinated, meaning that seed, carefully pollinated and saved from this year’s crop, will produce plants that match their parents in future years. Hybrid seeds won’t do this; they won’t breed true, producing wildly variable offspring.
Therein also lies the problem with labeling a fruit “heirloom.” Most fruit varieties are also wildly variable, and cannot be reproduced by seed; they must be propagated by rooted cuttings or grafting.
So what is an heirloom gardener to do? “Heirloom” clearly does not fit, nor does “heritage,” used for livestock, and much for the same reasoning. Rosarians, those gardeners fascinated with all things rose, provide a solution: “antique.”
The term “antique” distinguishes old fruit varieties, and any other older plant, like roses, which must be reproduced by grafting, layering, or rooting cuttings from seed-maintained heirlooms. A working definition of “antique” would be “any plant variety at least 75 years old, no longer widely grown commercially, which must be propagated by vegetative means.”
Besides, “antique strawberries” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Andrew Weidman, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, has been researching and writing about historic vegetables for years. He is a member of the Backyard Fruit Growers and has served as a county Master Gardener.