“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”
– Dr. William Butler, 17th century English writer, writing about the strawberry
Strawberries have officially taken over market stands all across Michigan, and so it is only appropriate that the Sprout Diaries acknowledge and appreciate this incredibly lovable summertime fruit. Before proceeding with a bit of history, however, I find it necessary to set one thing straight (Dr. William Butler, I hope you’re listening): the strawberry is not technically a berry. To be a berry, one must have developed from the ovary of a plant. The misnamed strawberry is, in fact, the fruit of the plant’s receptacle, or the thickened part of the stem from which the flower organ grows. The strawberry, then, is what botanists would call an accessory fruit, previously known as false fruit. In fact, the perpetually-confused tomato is more berry than a strawberry.
But before we make the strawberry feel any worse about itself, let’s move on.
Although wild strawberries have been peppering the Earth’s landscape with color for thousands of years, it is doubtful that the Ancients cultivated the fruit at all. Granted, an Ancient Roman would have known a different strawberry than what we’re familiar with today; most notably, a couple millennia ago the strawberry was much smaller. To make the fruit less appealing still, young children were discouraged from picking them for fear of snakes lurking in the grass nearby. The poor strawberry was outright dissed in the 12th century when an abbess named Saint Hildegard von Binger declared strawberries unfit for consumption. Hildegard apparently took issue with the fact that strawberries grew low to the ground among creepy crawlers like snakes and toads.
Thankfully, the strawberry’s luck began to change in the 16th century, when English explorers to America discovered the strawberry as Native Americans had been cultivating it in what is now Virginia. Europeans really got hooked after trying a local bread made from ground strawberries and meal (the forefather to the wildly popular strawberry shortcake). Samples of the plant were taken back to England in a hurry, and the strawberry’s prestige began to grow.
Flash forward two hundred years: while on assignment in Chile, a clever French engineer with an amateur interest in botany noticed a particularly large breed of strawberries and decided to bring some home to experiment with. The plants grew and grew, but, to the Frenchman’s dismay, never produced any berries. Unbeknownst to him, the Chilean variety grew in separate male and female plants, and the all-female sample he had brought home with him had no way of bearing the sought-after fruit.
Thirty-some years after the samples had arrived from Chile, someone decided to plant a few of the Virginian variety beside the Chilean ones, and strawberries were forever changed. A big juicy hybrid emerged from the marriage of the North and South American varieties, and you can be sure Europe took notice. One site claims that all cultivated strawberry varieties throughout the world can trace their history back to the joining of these two plant types.
Today, strawberries are cultivated in every one of the 50 states, with about three-quarters of the U.S.’s supply coming from California (but don’t worry, the Michigan variety is delicious, too!).
While we’ve already established that the berry in strawberry is, in fact, a misnomer, you may, like me, be curious about the first half of the word, too. Unfortunately, explanations for the origin of straw differ. Some claim that straw refers to the practice of using straw as mulch for the plants, while others say that straw is the modernized version of Old English streow, which describes how the tiny fruits appear to be strewn among the leaves.
Personally, I prefer the name used by the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island. Their word for strawberry–wuttahimneash– translates to “heart-seed berry,” a name more fitting for this darling of the fruit stand.