Wilderness Underfoot: The ancient strawberry

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112188364316897.jpg’, ”, ‘Unbearably delicious – The modern strawberry is a plump, nectary treat. It has been bred for improved size and flavor, and to bear fruit for longer durations during the growing season. Our ancestors had the pleasure of eating these fruit only a few weeks each year.’);
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This fruit has been tantalizing humans for thousands of years

Our relationship with the strawberry probably goes back to the times when the earliest humans set foot in the world’s cool temperate regions. Archaeologists have found strawberry seeds in ancient sites in Denmark dating back to the Mesolithic Period – around the time that the last Ice Age ended, 10,000 years ago. Seeds have also been found at other Stone Age sites in Switzerland and England.

Our ancestors would have gathered strawberries when the fruit was in season. Although the wild varieties bore fruit for only a few weeks each year, strawberries added seasonal variety and nutrition to the human diet.

The first cultivated strawberries were the woodland strawberry, Fragaria vesca, and musky strawberry, Fragaria moschata. These plants were found in temperate woodlands and meadows in much of Eurasia and North America, and they are still quite common today.

It took a few centuries of clever botany and luck for strawberry growers to develop large, luscious fruit like those we find in today’s supermarket. After cultivation of the strawberry started hundreds of years ago in Europe and Russia, botanists developed domesticated varieties by interbreeding different species and selecting out the best plant stock. By the 1500s, strawberries were becoming popular in English gardens. Domestic varieties had improved slightly over the wild ones, but strawberries didn’t begin to reach the large and juicy form we know today until just before the American Revolution.

In 1714, Captain Frezier of France had been sent to spy on Spanish formations in Chile and Peru. As an amateur botanist, he took an interest in plants of that region. He found a large-fruited strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, and brought five plants back to France. Unfortunately, they were all female stock, so for 30 years they grew green leafy vines and little more.

After an unknown gardener planted a male North American strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, next to one of the South American plants, the magic of romance took over. Cross-pollination of the two plants resulted in an offspring that came to be known as the pine or pineapple strawberry, Fragaria ananassa. This was the granddaddy of nearly all of the world’s modern strawberry crop.

From the July 20-26, 2005, issue

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