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Sneaking Strawberries: A Ripe Delight for Cooler Days

Words by
November 17, 2016
Looking back on the scientific history of plants you'll find a jumble of Latin names, tales of plant incest, mass migration and most likely a whole lot of speculation, of course with a dash of traceable knowledge. There’s a bit of a thrill being able to (more or less) trace the origins of the foods we know today, but the history which we don’t know or can’t see has potential for a lot more excitement. From an anthropological standpoint, put yourself in the shoes of that first person who decided to make the leap from ornamental beauty (Aww, what a cute little berry with strange seeds outside) to edible attraction (Maybe it will be delicious if I stuff it all in my mouth?). Would you be so brave?

In this case, we’re talking about the strawberry. Today’s gigantic bright red berry, the Fragaria ananassa, is a superhero variety created by crossing the hearty North American F. virginiana and the large Chilean F. chileonsis sometime in the 18th century. But their smaller and more ancient woodland cousins have histories with humans that date to ancient times, when tough wild strawberries were deemed edible, but not delicious enough to eat in abundance. In fact, early mentions of the strawberry from the likes of Roman poets Ovid and Virgil were typically in reference to their decorative flair rather than any delicious taste.

By the 1300s the French were taking wild strawberries from the woods and cultivating them in their gardens, so someone must have had a taste for these early-blooming fruits. One of those someones was Madame Tallien, later the Princess of Chimay, a staple in Emperor Napoleon's court. She was said to bathe in the juices of 22 pounds of strawberries. Quite an extravagance, but she may have been better off ingesting all that goodness. Strawberries have long been believed to improve appetite, treat poor digestion, prevent dental plaque and sooth a sore throat. In addition, strawberries have some of the highest percentage antioxidant content and are rich in vitamin C.
Sneaking Strawberries
illustration © Vibe Jakobsen
Strawberries have long been believed to improve appetite, treat poor digestion, prevent plaque and sooth a sore throat. In addition, strawberries have some of the highest percentage antioxidant content and are rich in vitamin C.
Strawberries are a sexy bunch, often interpreted as a sign of fertility and fecundity. Bravely displaying their seeds on their skin, strawberries can germinate even when soil isn’t present. Most cultivated garden strawberry plants last around three to four years, while the wild varieties (Fragaria vesca) might last up to ten. If you want to grow your own at home and indoors, woodland strawberries like the F. vescaAlexandria’ can be a good fit as they don’t send out runners and stay compact in the pot.

The strawberry is decorative and delicate. It’s an early bloomer and a sign of optimism, bursting forth with flower and fruit even in the face of early frost. In some areas of Bavaria, farmers continue the practice of filling small baskets with wild strawberries and hanging them from their cattle’s horns. The bountiful baskets are offerings for forest elves, said to have a weakness for strawberries and willing to bring good fortune for healthy calves and plentiful milk in return for the fruit. Sounds like a fair trade!
Sneaking Strawberries