Contributing Editor Diana Wells has been in almost every issue since GreenPrints #3! Our British-born garden historian, Diana seamlessly weaves personal and horticultural history together in a way that’s both entertaining and instructive. Her prizewinning 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names is in its umpteenth printing (15th, last I knew).
I really didn’t know which of the over 70 pieces she’s written for GreenPrints to represent her here. Finally, I settled one about everyone’s favorite small treat, the . . .
Fruit of the Gods
Strawberries have long been treasured.
By Diana Wells
Illustrations by Linda Cook Devona
“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” That is a remark said to have been made by a 17th century Dr. Boteler (or Butler) and quoted on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. And, of course, it’s about strawberries.
Except to the unfortunate few who are allergic to them, strawberries have always been a food of the Gods. Indeed, Virgil, in Metamorphoses, said they were eaten in the “Golden Age” when “men were content with food that grew without cultivation.” The strawberries that we eat today are not the same as the little wild berries that Virgil’s immortals collected and enjoyed. Those tiny sweet berries grew wild all over Europe and generally were picked form the woods rather than cultivated.
The botanical name Fragaria comes from the Latin fragrans, for the sweet smell of strawberry leaves, flowers, and the fruit itself. For those who grow strawberries, their fragrance on a warm summer evening is something you simply can’t find in a supermarket, however lush the berries look under their plastic wrap. The English name “strawberry” most likely doesn’t come from the straw often spread around the plants to protect them from damp—the name predates the practice. No, it derives from the old English name streawberige, for the way strawberries strew themselves, or spread, across the ground.
These days I don’t grow strawberries myself, but I do pick them whenever I can. Luckily, there are several farms near us that raise “U-Pick” berries, because I’d never willingly forgo the pleasure of picking my own. It’s not only the fragrance and the rustling leaves, and the excitement of finding the perfect berry. It’s also that nothing, nothing tastes as good as a sun-warmed strawberry popped into one’s mouth. Talk about a Golden Age—it’s right there in a hot field, right next to where I have parked my little car!
The strawberries I pick, and we all eat, are hybrids of Old World plant. When settlers came to America, they found much bigger berries than the little wild European ones. These European berries were called hautbois in French because they grew in “high woods.” (They shared the name with the oboe, a musical instrument that is a “high wood” because it reaches such high musical notes.)
The American berries were larger but less sweet than the wild European ones. When settlers sent plants, home, they were called “Virginia” strawberries. The real breakthrough for cultivated strawberries came when Louis XIV sent Ammedee Frezier to South America to spy on the Spanish regime and secretly make maps there. In Chile, Frezier found huge strawberries, which he described as being “as big as a hen’s egg,” and he brought plants back to France. These were hybridized with Virginia strawberries to make the ancestors of the hundreds of kinds we know now. Frezier himself had got his name from a family crest of strawberry flowers (Frezirs) on a blue background! Strawberries became a garden fruit, and King Louis himself ate so many that his doctor ordered him to stop. The great Carl Linnaeus ate them too, claiming that they controlled his gout!
Strawberries are amongst the “soft” fruits. Actually, what we think of as the fruit isn’t really the fruit at all. It’s a soft core onto which the fruit adheres. Those little hard-coated pips clinging onto the outside of the berry are the real frits (known as achenes). The juicy pulp is the equivalent of the core of a raspberry, which we discard.
Like all soft fruits, strawberries don’t keep or travel well. Readers of Little Women may remember the meal Jo cooks (on June 7th) to commemorate the death of their pet bird, Pip. It’s a dinner where everything goes wrong: The blancmange is lumpy; the cream is sour; she uses salt instead of sugar, and the strawberries are “deaconed.” Deaconed, far from meaning they were blessed, meant that they berries had been deceitfully sold with the good ones arranged on top to hide the rotten ones beneath—not a flattering reference to churchmen!
In a different religious context, we often see strawberries in paintings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Sometimes strawberry vines are framing the picture, or they nestle in the grass in front of the stable. The three leaves of the strawberry represented the Trinity, and the heart-shaped red berries presaged the drops of Christ’s blood. For someone (like me) who doesn’t attend a church but think of picking strawberries as a religious experience, all this fits in very well.
At this time of year, “U” who don’t pick can usually find somewhere to get freshly grown local berries. It’s worthwhile because it is not even worth comparing fresh strawberries with those in the stores. They are practically a different fruit. If you only know the store-bought ones, you might wonder what all this fuss is about. Yes, you can put cream and sugar on them, but they are not food of the Gods.
Sadly, we can now eat commercial strawberries year-round, flown in from warmer climates. In the old days this wasn’t possible, so strawberries kept their divine reputation.
Those of you who have read Reginald Arkell’s Old Herbaceous might recall Pinnegar, the gardener of the rather unsympathetic Mrs. Charteris. Secretly Pinnegar raises strawberries in a greenhouse to give his mistress a surprise. Then in spring she gives a tea party: “‘Strawberries!’ roared the General, ‘Strawberries in April! What will you be giving us next?’” Mrs. Charteris thinks she is seeing things. It is “as though the year had taken a giant’s stride forward, landing you suddenly in June.” But the miraculous bowl of berries is on the table, so Mrs. Charteris decides on the spot that well not, after all, “make a chanStrawberry Spotge” of gardener. Pinnegar remains with her until both of them grow old. “He would exasperate you,” says the dying Mrs. Charteris, “and then we would be so sweet you almost wanted to cry.”
So sweet you want to cry. That’s what I think about as kneel in a fragrant strawberry patch in June—and pick.
For a look at Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, click on the cover: