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Grubinger: Strawberry History

06/28/12 5:55PM By Vern Grubinger
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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.

(Grubinger) 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.

Then, 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.

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

But 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.

Before 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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