The genus Fragaria, that of the strawberry, first of the royal summer berries, alludes to attraction. Stemming from a Latin word for ‘fragrance,’ the Fragaria clan entice from a distance, both with the ink richness of their color and the sweet nectar that drifts from forest openings where a sprawling patch grows, from a warm afternoon in the garden or a bowl of ripe berries on the kitchen counter.
Wild strawberries ally with specific habitats: the woodland, meadow or coastline, and their fruits are small but flavorful—the best selections among them are still considered the culinary pinnacle of strawberry flavor. The strawberry as we know it, large and succulent, is an artifact of the garden. As is most cultivated fruit, garden strawberries are a hybrid resulting from a cross between wild species. In the case of the modern strawberry, two New World species, F. virginiana and F. chiloensis, brought back to Europe by explorers in the sixteen- and seventeen-hundreds sired the cross.
Previous to the modern hybrid’s introduction, wild strawberries of both the European and American continents had a long history of cultivation. European reverence for the strawberry likely extends back to the Romans, though it is not clear if they were ever grown on a scale larger than that of garden specimens. Strawberries appear in religious art following the Roman Empire’s fall, symbolizing purity, the blood of Christ, and, as in Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasure.
It was the French and English of the High Middle Ages, whose interest in the strawberry became more acute. Extensive plantings of wild strawberries appeared in royal gardens of the time. References to horticultural techniques for increasing berry size and production surfaced as well, including recommendations for regular applications of manure to create soils with high fertility and the replacement of plants every three years in order to maintain only the most vigorous fruit producers in the garden, techniques that persist with contemporary strawberry production.
Of the two wild strawberry species crossed to make our modern cultivars, one (F. virginiana) is indigenous to the Eastern side of the North American continent, and was discovered by early American settlers. Known as the Scarlet berry, F. virginiana began appearing widely in European strawberry cultivation by the 1600’s.
The other (F. chiloensis) was brought to Europe in 1714 by a French spy returning from the Spanish occupied city of Concepcion, Chile. There, Amedee Francois Frezier, an engineer sent to record possible ways to breech the city’s fortress, became enamored with the indigenous strawberry, long cultivated by natives of the Chilean coast to produce berries of a size like Frezier had never seen, “big as a walnut, and sometimes as a Hen’s egg.”
Frezier managed to deliver five living specimens upon his return, an achievement that seems almost prophesized by his name—Frazier stemming from the French word for strawberry, fraise. His ancestor, Julius du Berry, was knighted in 916 for delivering a dish of ripe strawberries to a Cardinal the Emperor and French King Charles Simplex was wining and dining. The Cardinal was greatly impressed with the berries, and the Emperor with the political leverage Julius’ gift had bestowed, so much so that he knighted Julius with the surname Fraise (later changed to Frezier) and a coat of arms that bears, among other symbols, strawberry flowers.
When Frezier returned to France, he gifted all but one of his F. chiloensis plants, bringing his own to the city of Brest, a coastal town in Brittany, where the first precursor of the garden strawberry likely occurred. Within a couple decades, a new strawberry variety became commonly available at markets in this region. Known as Barbary strawberries, later selections were eventually identified by the French strawberry scientist, Antoine Duchesne, to be a cross between F. virginana and F. chiloensis.
Though led on a winding path across continents and oceans, the strawberries that appear in our western Oregon markets have, in some sense, come home. The Chilean berry brought to France is the same species as our own native coastal strawberry, a plant whose indigenous range extends along the Pacific coasts of both North and South America.
And that celebrated fragrance endures; strawberries continue to beckon us from their perch at the market or their nook in the garden, delighting us with transient pleasures. In our region, both wild and cultivated Fragaria still signify the coming of summer, the opening of a fragrant gate onto a land of plenty. Each year we take the bait and follow its intimation with glee.