G.M. Darrow, The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology
THE HISTORY of the strawberry goes back as far as the Romans and perhaps even the Greeks, but because the fruit has never been a staple of agriculture it is difficult to find ancient references to it. Theophrastus, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen did not even mention it; nor did Cato, Varro, Columella or Palladius, the four Latin writers on agriculture. Apulius cited the strawberry only for its medicinal value. Although Virgil and Ovid did name the strawberry, in their verses, they did so only casually in poems of country life where they associated it with other wild fruits. Virgil, for example, included the strawberry among the beauties of the field in his Third Ecologue where the shepherd, Damoetas, is warned:
Ye boys that gather flowers and strawberries
Lo, hid within the grass an adder lies.
Ovid mentioned it twice, once in his description of the Golden Age from Book One of the Metamorphoses as "Arbuteas foetus, monatanaque fraga legebant," (They gathered Arbutus berries and mountain strawberries). Later, in the thirteenth book of the same work, Polyphemus, Galatea's rebuked lover, sings to her of the settlement he wants to make with her:
With thine own hands thou shalt thyself gather the soft strawberries growing beneath the woodland shade.
Pliny (23-79 A.D.) was the last known writer for many centuries to mention the strawberry. In the twenty-first book of his Natural History, he listed "Fraga," the fruit of the strawberry, as one of the natural products of Italy.
In a later section, Pliny confused the strawberry with the Arbutus or tree strawberry, "terrestribus fragis." Some natural historians believe that the strawberry was cultivated in Greek and Latin gardens and that it was served at banquets, but there are so few references to it that it is doubtful if much was made of it. The next surviving reference to the strawberry does not appear again until the thirteenth century in the writings of a Greek doctor, Nicholas Myrepsus. The literature of botany was often the literature of medicine, where plants were described for their use in treating ailments.
By the 1300's, the strawberry was in cultivation in Europe, for the French then began transplanting the wood strawberry, Fragaria vesca, from the wilderness to the garden. The plant was considered more ornamental for its flowers than useful for its fruit, although it was grown to some extent for eating. The financial accounts of a hospital or poorhouse in northern France in 1324 list an item "Pour Fraisiers A planter en la montaigne acates a Pierot Paillet et Aeles Paiele XII d," which might have been planted for their fruit. In 1368 King Charles V had his gardener, Jean Dudoy, plant no less than 1,200 strawberries in the royal gardens of the Louvre in Paris. In 1375 the Chateau de Couvres, near Dijon, property of the Dukes of Burgundy, had four blocks of the garden assigned to the cultivation of strawberries. They received particular care and good fertilization and the runners were transplanted to vacant soil to perpetuate the plants. "Doubtless its cultivation was crude, but still, it existed. The strawberry was so appreciated by the Duchess of Burgundy that it was sent to her when she visited in Flanders," wrote Bruyerin-Champier ( De re Cibaria, 1562).
England, too, was an early admirer of the strawberry. The Reverend John Earle compiled a list of early plant names from old lists appearing in documents and vocabularies between the tenth and the end of the fifteenth centuries. The successive modifications of the name from "Streowberige, Strea Berige, Streowberge, Streaw Berian Wisan, Streberi Lef," to "StrebereWyse" and "Strawberry" show a long familiarity with it there. The last name came from "A Pictorial Vocabulary of the Latter Part of the Fifteenth Century." The Anglo-Saxon word streow meant hay. According to one theory, the Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 900 called the strawberry the "hayberry" because it ripened at the time the hay was mown. Another guess is that the name derived from the way children strung the berries on straws of grass or hay to sell, a custom still practiced in parts of Ireland today. A more likely explanation is that the Anglo-Saxons used the name "strawberry" to describe the way the runners strew or stray away from the mother plant to find space in which to grow.
Londoners were buying the fruit from street vendors by 1430 when John Lidgate wrote the song of the "London Lickpenny." One verse quotes the cry of "strabery rype:"
Then unto London I dyde me hye
Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse;
"Gode pescode," one began to cry,
"Strabery rype, and cherrys in the ryse."1
English royalty, like French royalty, had developed a taste for the fruit.
"When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there:
I do beseech you send for some of them. . . "
the Duke of Gloucester asks the Bishop of Ely in Act III, Scene iv, of Shakespeare's tragedy Richard-III of 1597, and the strawberries were sent for on June 13, 1483, according to Shakespeare authorities. The reference at least indicates that in the 1400's the Bishop of Ely grew strawberries with such success in his garden at Holborn that the fact drew the attention of writers, whatever the symbolic overtones of the passage. One of the first known botanical illustrations of the strawberry appeared in the Mainz Herbarius of 1485 (Plate 3-1).
By the 1500's references to the cultivation of the strawberry were more frequent; physicians and apothecaries discovered its supposed medical uses, and botanists began to name the different species. The Grete Herball appeared in London in 1526 as an English translation from the French work on the medicinal uses of herbs and was printed by Peter Treveris. Here is the description of "The Fragaria. Strawberyes"
Fragaria is an herbe called strabery. It groweth in woodes and grenes, and shadowy places. It is pryncypally good agaynst all evylles of the mylt. The uice therof drunken with hony profyteth mervaylously.
For the brethe
For them that take brethe with payne as it were syghynge. The uice therof take in drinke white peper heleth it. Strawberyes eate helpeth coleryke persones, comforteth the stomake, and quencheth thyrst.
Perhaps King Henry VIII believed that royal pleasure led to royal health for in 1530, four years after the publication of The Grete Herball, he paid ten shillings for a "pottle of strawberries" according to the Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII. A pottle was a small basket, shaped like an inverted cone, and often held less than one-half a pint. This measure indicates that the fruits of the time were small, and must have been wood strawberries.
Ruellius, a botanist of the period, also referred to the cultivation of strawberries in his De Natura Stirpium Libri (1536). Describing them as "growing wild in shady places," he also notes that "gardens furnish a larger fruit." By the mid-1500's in England, demand for the fruit had stimulated regular strawberry farming. In his "Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry" (1557), Tusser recommended strawberry cultivation as an appropriate part of the "employment of women." Under "September's Husbandry" Tusser wrote:
Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got;
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.
In France in 1562, Bruyerin-Champier, physician to Henry IV, included the strawberry among the plants which had recently entered French gardens. Sixteen years later, instructions for its cultivation appeared in L'Agriculture et Maison Rustique, in which Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault prescribed replanting the fields with strawberries every three years and annual hoeing and fertilizing. Gallo wrote from Italy in the same decade that "strawberries can be easily had in abundance in one's garden."2 By the end of the century the strawberry's popularity was general. Hyll gave the final evaluation in the Gardener's Labyrinth (1593):
They be much eaten at all men's tables in the sommer time with wine and sugar, and they will grow in gardens until the bigness of the mulberry. [The strawberry] requires small labour, but, by diligence of the gardener, becometh so great that the same yieldeth faire and big berries as the berries of the bramble in the hedge.
While the 1500's have horticultural significance for establishing the strawberry as a common garden plant, in double service as an ornament and as a table delicacy, this century was also important for the progress in botanical knowledge of the plant. By the end of the century all three European species of Fragaria-F. vesca, F. moschata, and F. viridis -- had been cited. The common garden strawberry was F. vesca, which was transplanted from the woods and propagated by runners, the plots restocked by fresh transplantations (Plate 3-2). Two subspecies of F. vesca were identified. The white strawberry, or F. sylvestris alba(Plate 3-3), was noted frequently, dating from Jerome Bock's, or Targus's, description in 1532 of Fraga alba seu candida. Ruellius was one of the earliest writers to name different kinds of strawberries, and in 1536 he distinguished between the red and white F. vesca. Conrad Gesner, Dodoens and Camerarius were other classicists among botanists who cited white F. vesca during this century. Gesner remarked that it was especially common in the mountains around Baden, Switzerland. John Gerarde in The Herball (1597) also included Fragaria alba among his strawberries.
The everbearing strawberry, F. sylvestris semperflorens, was a second subspecies of F. vesca brought to attention in the 1500's. It was described by Jerome Bock in 1532, and in 1553 by Conrad Gesner, as a strawberry which flowered and fruited in the Alps throughout the growing season. Although they thought this everbearing quality was common to all F. vesca they must have had the Alpine specimen in mind. Later botanists noted that it differed from F. silvestris, the wood strawberry, only in its greater vigor. It flowered three to four months after germination and continued flowering, even in winter, bearing fruits until the severe frosts of November and December. The young runner plants often flowered before they could take root. Although cited by Bock and Gesner, F. silvestris semperflorens was not cultivated until a rediscovery in 1764 by a Mr. Fougeroux of Bondaroi.
So inclusive were the botanists of this period in their descriptions and collections of plants that even freak varieties of the wood strawberry had a place in their herbals. One such curiosity was F. vesca sive sterilis or the "Barren Strawberrie" described by Gerarde. Later, in 1766, when it had totally disappeared, it was cited as the Plymouth Strawberry of England (F. silvestris var. muricata Duch). It was a sterile, freak variety with apetalous flowers which produced ill-formed and sharp midget fruits with completely aborted ovaries and it had little of the flavor of the strawberry. Tradescant had found a specimen around 1620 at Plymouth, England, and for sixty or eighty years it was cultivated in all the botanical gardens of Europe. In 1629 Parkinson called it the Prickly Strawberry.
The green strawberry, F. viridis or collina Ehrh., the second of the three native species, also was described. Jean Thale in 1588 wrote of a strawberry he had seen in the Black Forest of Germany before 1530 which he named the Knackelbeer Presling, and in 1586 Joachim Camerarius spoke of le fraisier tardif, the late strawberry or "brossling." Le Petit Fraisier of Leonard Fuchs (1542) and Le Fraisier a fruit doux of Dodoens (1583) were other synonyms. So, too, was the "greenish strawberry," F. subviridis of John Gerarde in The Herball of 1597. He wrote, "there be divers sorts of strawberries, one red, another white, a third sorte greene and likewise a wilde strawberries which is altogether barren of fruite." Of the "greenish strawberry" alone he wrote: "There is another sort which bringeth forth leaves, flowers and strings like the other of his kind. The fruit is green when it is ripe, tending to redness upon that side that lieth to the sunne, cleaving faster to the stems, and is of a sweeter taste, which maketh the difference."
Caesalpinus, in his De Plantis (Florence, 1583), described a subspecies of F. viridis which he had found in the Bargemon Alps of France and which he called Fragaria bifera because it bore both spring and summer fruits. Years later, in the 1760's, the naturalist Duchesne had a correspondent collect specimens for him. Some were transplanted and cultivated in the gardens of Bargemon, a town at the foot of the Alps. There they "bear fruit in all seasons. Only the extremely rigorous winters present an obstacle to this continual fecundity," reported R. P. Antoine, the correspondent. Later botanists have noted that this twice-bearing quality is common to all specimens of F. viridis.
The musky-flavored strawberry, F. moschata Duch. or F. elatior Ehrh., was the third species noted in this century and is the third species indigenous to Europe. The only mention of it in the 1500's was by Matthias Lobelius in his Observations sur les Plantes (1570); that is, botanists believe that he referred to F. moschata when he designated a strawberry as Fragaria E. Fraga majore alba. Lobelius said that a common term for it was the "Gallobelgis des Chapirons," and Duchesne in 1766 noted that the flower merchants still called it the "Chaperon."3 The musky strawberry was not cited again until 1613 in Besler's Hortus Eystettensis, which contained drawings of plants grown in the famous botanical garden of Aichstat in Francony. Besler had drawn a female specimen (the unisexual character of F. moschata was not recognized, however, until Duchesne's study of it in 1766). Besler called it the "Big-Fruited Strawberry" and referred to the very pleasant taste, odor and flavor of its fruits, which he said compared in size with certain plums. This description led Gaspar Bauhin in 1623 to call it the "strawberry with fruit as large as a small plum," and around 1640 Simon Paulli identified it by the same name. Paulli said he had seen it in Denmark where one year it gave fruits as large as peaches due to the excellent soil and the good weather that season.
The authors of the first Catalogue du Jardin du Roi called it simply "Fraisier etranger," or foreign strawberry. The wild habitat of F. moschata is still unknown. The Robins, who wrote the Catalogue in 1624, thought it came from Pannonie and gave their "foreign strawberry" the botanical name Fragaria major pannonica. Pannonie is a region of Europe between the Danube river to the north and the Illyria to the south. In 1629 Parkinson called it the "Bohemia Strawberry" or Fragaria major sterilis seu bohemica and he wrote:
The Bohemia Strawberry hath beene with us but of late days, but it is the goodliest and the greatest, both for leafe next to the Virginian, [F. virginiana, a North American strawberry introduced in the 1600's to Europe] and for beauty farre surpassing all; for some of the berries have been measured to bee neere five inches about. Master Queester, the Postmaster, first brought them over into our country, as I understand, but I know of no man so industrious in the carefull planting and bringing them to perfection in that plentifull maner as Master Vincent Sion who dwelt on the Banck side, neer the old Paris garden staires, who from seven rootes, as bee affirmed to me, in one yeare and a halfe, planted halfe an acre of ground with the increase from them, besides those he gave away to his friends, and with him I have seene such, and of that bignesse before mentioned. (Paradisus in terrestris sole, London, 1629)
F. moschata was always more popular in England where it was known as the "Hautbois" or "Hautboy" because of its long flower stems which rose high above the leaves. An illustration of its unpopularity in France is a passage from De la Quintinie, who wrote several works on gardening in the late 1600's and early 1700's: "I want even the Caprons (F. moschata) torn out or at least that no particular friendliness be held toward them. They are easy to know by their large, short and hairy runners, their very large flower, and their large, hairy, and almost prickly leaf."4 "It has been known for a very long time in the gardens around Paris, but it is scorned there," wrote Duchesne in 1766. "The English cultivate it, on the contrary, to adorn their tables."5 Its fruit was a deep, purplish red in color and had a pasty quality in the poorer varieties. Duchesne knew of specimens from England, Holland and Germany in the mid-1700's and Felicien Lesourd in 1943 said its distribution spread from England as far as Finland and that although it was then very rare, it was still cultivated for its excellent, lightly musky aroma despite the infertility due to its unisexual characters It has been reported as the main cultivated strawberry in the Vierlanden near Hamburg, Germany, until the late 19th century and it was frequently grown in Russia until the 1930's. In 1766 Duchesne knew of two or three perfect hermaphrodites, or bisexual ones, but he later noted they had become almost sterile.
At the end of the 1500's the two strawberries cultivated in gardens were the wood strawberry, F. vesca, and the musky strawberry, F. moschata, both characterized by small, distinctly flavored fruits. In all, the early botanists of that century had named three European species: F. vesca and its subspecies F. vesca semperflorens; I,. moschata, just cited, and F. viridis, the green strawberry. The singular significance of the 1600's to strawberry history was the introduction to Europe of F. virginiana from eastern North America, for this berry was to sire today's modern, big-fruited strawberry.
Perhaps someone, someday, will discover the true story of the Virginia strawberry's journey to Europe. At present only a few works are known which suggest that it reached Europe in the early seventeenth century. The earliest of these is Gaspar Bauhin's Pinax, printed in Paris in 1623. There Bauhin designated the "Fraga acque magna ac in Anglia crescunt." Some botanists believe that Bauhin had in mind Besler's musky-flavored strawberry, F. moschata, from the Hortus Eystettensis (1613), and that Bauhin had not actually seen this strawberry as he did not include it in the enumeration of strawberry species. Yet his description shows that he had heard there were large strawberries in Virginia. No one even knows if the Virginian strawberry was introduced first into England or first to the European continent. Bauhin referred to England, and in 1656 John Tradescant noted a Fragaria nova anglia nondum descripta in the catalogue of his plant collection, Musaeum Tradescantianum, published in London. If this was F. virginiana then Tradescant would have been the first to refer to it. According to Pritzel, Tradescant died in 1638. Duchesne believed his catalogue was written about 1616, but not published until 1656 by his son. From the little that is known about Tradescant it seems likely that about this time he was making his famous collecting trips to the European continent. Thus he may have brought F. virginiana to England then.
An American strawberry, Fragaria americana, was cited in 1624 by Jean and Vespasien Robin, botanists to Louis XIII, in their Manuel Abrege des Plantes. Five years later, John Parkinson in his Paradisus in terrestris sole designated "the Virginia Strawberry" in English and 1629 has been given traditionally for the introduction of F. virginiana to England. Parkinson wrote:
The Virginia Strawberry carryeth the greatest leafe of any other, except the Bohemian [F. moschata], but scarce can one Strawberry be seene ripe among a number of plants; I thinke the reason therof to be the want of skill or industry to order it aright. For the Bohemia and all other Strawberries will not beare kindly, if you stiffer them to grow with many strings, and therefore they are still cut away.
The kind from Brussels, he went on to say, was brought by Tradescant. In seven years Parkinson had never known a berry to be fully ripened on all sides. One side was always rotten, although the plants flowered abundantly each year and the leaves were very large. Parkinson thus verified Tradescant's journeying to Europe and his importation of a strawberry from Brussels. Was this F. virginiana? Was more than one kind of F. virginiana then known? Or was this the first specimen of the Virginia Strawberry introduced by Tradescant? Parkinson did not say.
After Parkinson, references to F. virginiana followed thick and fast. Gui de la Brosse, head of the Jardin du Roi at Paris, in 1636 included a Fragaria americana magno fructo rubro in his Catalogue of the Garden. Ray gave a Latin translation of Parkinson, and Morison in his History called the plant the "Virginia Strawberry with Scarlet Fruit." Under this designation, Tournefort, Boerhaave and other botanists cited it in Latin in their catalogues. In 1738 Linnaeus identified it in the garden of George Clifford, a wealthy banker who had a large botanical collection in Amsterdam. Langley had a good engraving made of its flowers and fruits with an accompanying description in his Pomone, published in London in 1729.
The spread of the new species was very gradual and it remained little appreciated as late as the middle of the eighteenth century. Not until the end of that century would a rise in its popularity result in the introduction of new varieties, which increased from three to nearly thirty by 1820, for a time outnumbering other kinds.
The wood strawberry still predominated among strawberry growers in the late 1600's. The musky, the green and the Virginia strawberry, were grown to a minor extent. No improvement of the fruit by raising new varieties from seed had been attempted seriously. Gardeners were satisfied to grow the wild species and the few varieties of them which had occurred naturally,. The first half of the next century would bring the dramatic development of the commercial big-fruited strawberry. Meanwhile, the 17th century importation of F. virginiana had been the first step in bringing together the future parents of the modern strawberry. The Virginia strawberry was the sire of this modern cross. The journey of a French spy to Chile in 1712 resulted in the introduction of the female plant, the other American parent of F. grandiflora or F. ananassa, our present big-fruited strawberry.
1 Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants. ed. by U. P. Hedrick. Albany, New York, 1919, p. 192.
2 Lesourd, Felicien, Le Fraisier, Second Edition, ed. by Charles Simmen. Paris, 1943, p. 36.
3 Duchesne, Antoine Nicolas, L'Histoire Naturelle des Fraisiers. Paris, 1766, p. 52.
4 De la Quintinie, Instruction pour les Jardins Fruitier et Potagers, Volume 11. Paris, 1715.
5 Duchesne, op. cit., p. 164.
6 Lesourd, op. cit., p. 26.