Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Strawberry's Long Journey

While visiting a nature preserve in California between Half Moon Bay and Pescadero State Beach, I made a very interesting discovery about the origin of strawberries. Thanks to an interpretive sign at the preserve, I learned that the beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, is one of the ancestors of today's domestic strawberries. The plant is native to most of the west coast of North and South America, and was named after Chiloe Island in Southern Chile (700 mi south of Santiago). It grows on coastal dunes and grasslands, which can be harsh on the Pacific Coast, with such stresses as unrelenting winds, salt spray, and 8-9 months without rain. In the spring, it develops white five-petaled flowers and small red fruit.

Above photo © 2005 Doreen L. Smith, used with permission.



The story of how the beach strawberry entered the world of commercial agriculture is told in a direct way in the Oxford Companion to Food, and more indirectly and personally by Raymond Sokolov in his Why We Eat What We Eat. My comments below draw from both sources.

The strawberry named itself: its Latin name is "Fragaria", for its fragrance. There are four main species of wild strawberries:
  • Fragaria vesca, indigenous to Europe and Asia (photos)
  • F. moschata, Central Europe
  • F. virginiana (the scarlet or Virginia strawberry), Eastern North American (photos)
  • F. chiloensis (the pine or beach strawberry), West Coast of North and South America (photos)

Although wild strawberries have small fruits, lots of seeds and low yield, they are sought after because of their wonderful flavor. Wild strawberries have probably been eaten by humans since their discovery, but serious cultivation attempts began in Europe in the 14th century. In the 17th century, a few decades after the Virginia colonies were established, the Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana) was brought back to Europe. However, it would not cross breed with the European wild strawberries.

Also in the 17th century, a few beach strawberry plants (F. chiloensis) were imported into France from Chile by a member of the French Navy named Amédée François Frézier. The specimens were given to the great botanist Bernard de Jussieu at the King's Garden in Paris. Jussieu propagated the plant and gave specimens ot botanists around Europe. They tinkered and made a variety of fruit sizes (including some as large as an apple), but none had sufficiently attractive flavor, aroma, or hardiness to become commercial plants.

Another French botanist, Antoine Nicholas Duchesne, was working on the strawberry, and planted a Virginia strawberry near a beach strawberry in his experimental plots. The two New World plants cross pollinated, and produced a hardy plant with excellent fruit. It was named F. ananassa, because of a pineapple fragrance. These hybrids were sent to various botanists in Europe, with the first commercially successful plants produced in England in 1819 and called "Keen's seedlings." Some of these were brought to the United States and were used to start a commercial strawberry industry. In more recent times, University of California agriculture departments have worked hard to create new varieties (a summary from USDA).

It almost seems like a fairy tale. Scrawny and unruly plants from two opposite coasts of newly colonized continents accidentally meet in Paris, and their descendents go on to great success as a famous, delicious and versatile fruit.

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Two photos of prime beach strawberry habitat on the California Coast:



2 comments:

Sury said...

Wonderful post, Marc! As they are wont to, the French can take just about anything and turn it into an art form,eh? The strawberry's journey across Europe and the Americas sounds just as fascinating as the fruit itself. Thanks for educating me :)

Brett said...

Very interesting post, Marc. My most vivid strawberry memory is tasting a wild beach strawberry on a hike a few years ago. It was so tiny, yet absolutely exploded with pure strawberriness. It is the flavor by which I compare all other strawberries. While no commercial variety really comes close, the best I have had are the little strawberries grown by Lucero.