National Geographic : 1951 Sep
A Pan American Union Produced Our Strawberries T HE strawberry is America's favorite cul tivated berry. In large commercial plant ings and small gardens, we devote approxi mately 180,000 acres to growing it. The annual crop has a cash value of more than $35,000,000. The berries are sold fresh or frozen for breakfast or dessert fruit; cooked and canned, or made into unexcelled preserves; or com bined with other ingredients into two of our most popular confections, strawberry short cake and strawberry ice cream. Because they are easy to grow, strawberries are found in many home gardens. Spraying is generally not necessary; a moderate amount of cultivation, weeding, fertilizing, and oc casional transplanting are all the care they need. They are also one of the few crops which part-time farmers can easily turn into profits. The plants will grow on soils ranging from sand to clay, and in climatic areas from Florida into Canada and Alaska. In colder parts of the country, beds must be covered in winter, usually with from one to six inches of straw. Breeding and Cultivation Began Late Although species of strawberry are native in most of the temperate regions of the world, the large-fruited, productive varieties of the present have come from the union of species found in the two Americas. As an important cultivated fruit, the strawberry is a recent addition to world horticulture. Wild strawberries were found over much of Europe from the earliest days, being men tioned by Virgil (70-19 B. c.) and Pliny the Elder (A. D. 23-79). Not until centuries later, however, is there evidence of cultivation. Berries from the wild were taken into gardens at least by the 15th century. These European species bore fruit of good quality and were especially notable for their aroma, but the fruits were small and the plants bore spar ingly. Little improvement in size or yield occurred under cultivation. When the colonists landed in eastern Amer ica, they were amazed at the abundance, plant vigor, and fruitfulness of the native straw berry, Fragariavirginiana. "Wee cannot sett downe a foote but tred on strawberries," a colonist from Maryland wrote home to Eng land. This strawberry was taken to France; the date, as given by Jean Rodin, gardener to Louis XIII, was 1624. From France it was taken to England and other European coun tries and was extensively grown in gardens. The berries, even under cultivation, remained small, although of good flavor and much more productive than the old European kinds. The next great event in the history of the strawberry was the introduction of plants from Chile, South America. Long before the white men arrived, the Indians of Chile had cultivated a strawberry better than the Euro pean or the wild North American varieties. Some plants bore fruit as large as walnuts. A Frenchman, Captain Frezier, observed these strawberries and took plants to France in 1712. A few years later, the Chilean berries, F. chiloensis, were taken to England. It seems probable, although direct proof is lacking, that European gardeners in many cases planted the Chilean and the North American kinds in the same gardens. Seed ling plants which were crosses of the two kinds originated by chance. Some of these were large-fruited, vigorous, productive plants, the ancestors of our modern varieties. Not until shortly before 1800, however, were these improved varieties listed by Amer ican nurserymen. One of the first of these, a variety from Europe named Pine, but with F. chiloensis in its ancestry, became a parent of many varieties produced in this country. By 1825, strawberry growing was well estab lished in home gardens, and commercial cul ture near the larger cities was developing. In 1838, Charles M. Hovey, a fruit grower, breeder, and writer on horticulture at Cam bridge, Massachusetts, introduced a variety which he had grown from seed produced by cross-pollination. This variety, named the Hovey, not only was a sensational improve ment in strawberries but represented, so far as is known, the first fruit variety of any kind originating as a result of definite breeding effort in the United States. It proved a great stimulus to fruit breeding. Improvement Projects Under Way Since the latter half of the 19th century many amateur breeders have crossed and selected strawberries, and the general quality of the varieties has continually improved. In addition, several of the State experiment stations and the U. S. Department of Agricul ture have large-scale breeding projects for the improvement of this fruit. Most of the out standing new varieties of the past 20 years have come from this State and Federal work. Strawberries are grown to some extent in every State in the Union. Largest centers of commercial production are in Louisiana, Ten nessee, Arkansas, Oregon, California, North Carolina, and the sections of Maryland, Dela ware, and New Jersey east of Chesapeake Bay. Commercial production is carried on in almost every State, however, and in all other nations of the Temperate Zones the "Pan American" strawberries are the kinds principally grown.