I have always had an insatiable appetite for strawberries. At some point as a kid, I took over my mother’s strawberry patch—weeding, picking, selling, and eating large quantities of berries every spring. Here at Crazy Corner Farm, I also have a large strawberry patch. The original idea was that strawberries would be my cash crop—I’d sell lots of berries and support my gardening habit that way. It worked fine for a while…until I realised that, actually, we could consume every one of our berries without any problem at all, even when I was bringing in several kilograms every two days. I still sell some, and I give away plenty (they make spectacular Christmas gifts—who doesn’t want a punnet of strawberries?), but mostly we eat them.
The hardy, large-fruited strawberry we know today took many years to develop. Wild strawberries were cultivated in Europe as early as the 1300s, but it wasn’t until two New World species (Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria chiloensis) were imported to Europe that modern varieties were bred. The French accidentally pollinated the Chilean strawberry with the Virginia strawberry, and voila! They got a berry that was large, like the Chilean one, and hardy, like the Virginia one. Well, actually, it wasn’t that easy. After the French did it accidentally, the English spent many years crossing and recrossing these two species to develop a large, hardy strawberry. When these plants were shipped to America, most didn’t survive the colder North American winters, so more crosses had to be made.
Even then, strawberries wouldn’t grow everywhere and had incomplete flowers (only male or female parts), so they needed different varieties to cross pollinate them. It wasn’t until 1851 that James Wilson, from New York, developed a variety that was productive in almost any soil, and had perfect flowers, so it could be grown by itself. The commercial strawberry industry was born.
Since then, hundreds of varieties have been produced, some by professionals, many by amateur breeders who just loved strawberries.
I initially planted several different varieties in my strawberry patch. Those original plants are long dead, but have cross bred and sent out runners, so that today I have an intriguing mix of varieties. I can still identify some—Yolo and Strawberry Sundae are distinctive and easy to pick out. Many plants, though, have a mix of characteristics, and some even produce berries more like their wild ancestors. Every year, I nurture the ones I like and selectively weed out the ones that aren’t so great. Amateur strawberry growers all over the world do the same, I’m sure, giving us a wonderful range of sweet, tart, large, small, white-fleshed, red-fleshed, pointy and round berries. So many different types, I want to eat them all!