Wild strawberries were mentioned in early Greek and Roman writings. The “Alpine berries,” as they were called, were first cultivated in Europe in the Middle Ages. When settlers arrived in North America, they found strawberries (Fragaria vesca) growing wild here, and they saw larger strawberries being cultivated by the Native Americans.
As farms and cities were established in this country, families planted, among other things, “strewberries.” That was an early name of the perennial herb because of the way the berries are strewn among the leaves. Incidentally, the berries are “fruits,” and fruits are the ovaries of a plant. The ovaries, of course, are essential for plant reproduction. They contain and protect the seeds. Normally a fruit — an apple, for example — consists of “flesh” (the whitish sweet part of the apple) and “skin” (the red- or yellow-colored outer wall of the ovary). However, the strawberry is an ovary turned inside out — the seeds are on the outside of the fruit.
Strawberries are said to be “cooling.” Herbalist Gerard declared that the berries “quench thirst, cooleth heate of the stomicke and inflammation of the liver.” Strawberries are also reputed to calm the nerves, and aid in bowel disorders (even ridding the intestines of worms). Crushed berries soothe sunburn, and supposedly whiten the complexion and make freckles disappear. You can even use the crushed berries for cleaning the teeth. Moreover, the wonder-berry is a good diuretic and astringent. It aids in healing, and has antibacterial properties. Strawberry juice has been used in typhoid epidemics. On top of all this, the plant can help with “female problems.”
In 1884 presidential candidate Martin Van Buren was highly criticized because he allegedly used public money to raise strawberries for his own table. Nowadays many places hold strawberry festivals to help the local economy (in legitimate ways, of course). At these events beaucoups of strawberries are consumed, especially in strawberry eating contests (at least the berries are low in calories and high in vitamin C). Strawberry kings, queens, and “kids” are often crowned. Music is usually a part of the fun. At the Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, “Strawberry Capital of Louisiana,” one can see “ribbon-winning strawberries” and enjoy “egg tosses.” (The festival is in April so there is often the Easter connection….) Just up the road a piece, Hammond, Louisiana, once known as the Strawberry Capital of America, is home to Southeastern Louisiana University's Strawberry Stadium.
Vine-ripened, homegrown berries are the best. Pick them in the cool of the day. If you don't grow your own, look for strawberries which are brightly colored and sweet-strawberry-smelling. Avoid boxes of strawberries which are stained or soggy. Such boxes might contain crushed, deteriorating, or moldy berries (underneath the prettier ones placed on top). Often huge berries have less flavor than smaller strawberries. Refrigerate the berries you select and wait to wash them until just before using.
Thomas Tusser advised in his 1573 book Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, “[Strawberries] wel chosen and picked, proove excellent good.”
Copyright ©2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.