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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

History of the Strawberry

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist

Strawberries are among the first fruit to ripen in the Northeast. The flower buds formed last fall and were tucked away under a layer of straw for the winter. Then an early-spring heat wave pushed the plants along. That made the flowers open early, and growers kept busy protecting them from frost on cold nights, using sprinklers to form ice, which funny as it sounds, gives off heat when it forms. Now the berries are ready and hopefully the weather will be good throughout the harvest period so fruit losses are minimal and the customers come out and pick, too.

In the Northeast, strawberry acreage isn’t large, but the crop is quite important to diversified vegetable and berry farms. Strawberries have a high value per acre and provide early season income.  The 2007 Census of Agriculture counted 625 farms with 1,659 acres of strawberries in New York; Pennsylvania had 856 farms with 1,254 acres; Massachusetts had 195 farms with 337 acres. In Vermont, we had 122 farms with 185 acres of strawberries.  A typical yield is about six thousand pounds an acre, so over a million pounds of Vermont strawberries must be picked and eaten in a relatively short time. 

Nationally, over half of the nearly 3 billion pounds of berries grown each year comes from specialized farms in California, with Florida a distant second. In 2010, strawberries surpassed apples to become third among fruits in their economic contribution to agriculture in the U.S., after grapes and oranges, and strawberries are the fifth highest consumed fresh fruit by weight in the U.S. behind bananas, apples, oranges and grapes.  The health benefits of strawberry consumption include antioxidants, folate, potassium, vitamin C and fiber. This is part of the reason why per capita consumption of strawberries has increased steadily since 1970, from just less than 3 pounds to over 6 pounds today. The proportion of fresh vs. frozen has also increased during this period.

Not that long ago commercial strawberry production didn’t even exist.  True, the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid did mention the strawberry way back in the first century A.D., but they referenced it as an ornamental, not as a food.  Wild strawberries have been eaten by people around the world since ancient times, but not in large quantities since the fruits were small or tough or lacked flavor. 

By the 1300's the strawberry was in cultivation in Europe, when the French began transplanting the wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) from the wilderness to the garden.  At the end of the 1500's the musky strawberry (Fragaria moschata) was also being cultivated in European gardens. Then, in the 1600’s, the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) of North America reached Europe. The spread of this new relatively hardy species was very gradual and it remained little appreciated until the end of the 1700’s and early 1800's when it was popular in England. At that time, English gardeners worked to raise new varieties from seed and they increased the number of varieties from three to nearly thirty.

Meanwhile, a French spy brought the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) from Chile to France in 1714. This species of strawberry had a quality the others lacked: size.  It had fewer but larger flowers and gave rise to larger fruit. However, the Chilean strawberry was not hardy and was difficult to grow inland, away from mild coastal climates.  

These two New World species of strawberries were crossed in Europe, giving rise to the modern strawberry, Fragaria ananassa. It was the French who first accidentally pollinated the Chilean strawberry with the Virginia strawberry when pistillate Chilean plants were inter-planted with staminate Virginian plants and natural hybrids were made. The English did most of the early breeding work to develop the ancestors of the varieties we enjoy today.  All modern strawberry varieties have descended from this crossing of Virginia and Chilean strawberries. The transition from these native species to modern varieties was a long process, involving the hybridization of the two species, then hybridization of their descendants, and back-crossing to the original parents and selection of plants with desirable traits for further breeding.

‘Hovey’ was the name of the first American strawberry variety that resulted from a planned cross, and it is an ancestor of most modern varieties.  It was developed by Charles Hovey, a nurseryman in Cambridge, MA, in 1834.  ‘Wilson’ was originated in 1851 by James Wilson who selected it from a cross of ‘Hovey’ grown with other varieties. This variety was more productive, firmer and hardier than any other large-fruited variety, and could be grown on nearly any soil. It was also perfect-flowered, so it could be grown by itself without another variety for pollination. Wilson changed the strawberry into a major crop grown all across the continent; the strawberry industry soon increased 50-fold, to one hundred thousand acres.

About 1909 the variety ‘Howard 17’ was introduced by E.C. Howard of Belchertown, MA.  It had tolerance to leaf spot, leaf scorch and virus diseases and it formed many crowns with early flower bud initiation. For decades it was important for commercial use and breeding.
Before 1920 most strawberry breeding was done by growers but since then almost all new varieties were developed by breeders at federal or state experiment stations.  Eventually these breeders were able to determine that all species of strawberries have the same 7 chromosomes in common, but they vary in how many pairs of chromosomes they possess. Some species are diploid, with two pairs of chromosomes, others are tetraploid, meaning they have 4 pairs, while the modern strawberry is octoploid, with 8 pairs of chromosomes.

For more information on this topic you can read: The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology. It’s now on-line, but was first compiled in 1957 by George M. Darrow, a Vermonter who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Renowned as a small fruit expert, he led efforts to improve the disease resistance of strawberries and he developed more than two dozen strawberry varieties, some of which were widely used to breed the fruits we eat today.

For a list of current varieties for the Northeast and their characteristics, here is a link to a Strawberry Variety Review by Dr. Courtney Weber at Cornell University: http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/berry/production/pdfs/strcultreview2012.pdf

Published: June 2012
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