Strawberries - The Five Species And Their History - Success With Small Fruits

Strawberries - The Five Species And Their History - Success With Small Fruits


The conscientious Diedrich Knickerbocker, that venerated historian from whom all good citizens of New York obtain the first impressions of their ancestry, felt that he had no right to chronicle the vicissitudes of Manhattan Island until he had first accounted for the universe of which it is a part. Equally with the important bit of land named, the strawberry belongs to the existing cosmos, and might be traced back to "old chaos." I hasten to re-assure the dismayed reader. I shall not presume to follow one who could illumine his page with genius, and whose extensive learning enabled him to account for the universe not merely in one but in half a dozen ways.

It is the tendency of the present age to ask what is, not what has been or shall be. And yet, on the part of some, as they deliberately enjoy a saucer of strawberries and cream,—it is a pleasure that we prolong for obvious reasons,—a languid curiosity may arise as to the origin and history of so delicious a fruit. I suppose Mr. Darwin would say, "it was evolved." But some specimens between our lips suggest that a Geneva watch could put itself together quite as readily. At the same time, it must be said that our "rude forefathers" did not eat Monarch or Charles Downing strawberries. In few fruits, probably, have there been such vast changes or improvements as in this. Therefore, I shall answer briefly and as well as I can, in view of the meagre data and conflicting opinions of the authorities, the curiosity, that I have imagined on some faces. Those who care only for the strawberry of to-day can easily skip a few pages.

If there were as much doubt about a crop of this fruit as concerning the origin of its name, the outlook would be dismal, indeed. In old Saxon, the word was streawberige or streowberrie; and was so named, says one authority, "from the straw-like stems of the plant, or from the berries lying strewn upon the ground." Another authority tells us: "It is an old English practice" (let us hope a modern one also) "to lay straw between the rows to preserve the fruit from rotting on the wet ground, from which the name has been supposed to be derived; although more probably it is from the wandering habit of the plant, straw being a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon strae, from which we have the English verb stray." Again tradition asserts that in the olden times children strung the berries on straws for sale, and hence the name. Several other causes have been suggested, but I forbear. I have never known, however, a person to decline the fruit on the ground of this obscurity and doubt. (Controversialists and sceptics please take note.)

That the strawberry should belong to the rose family, and that its botanical name should be fragaria, from the Latin fragro, to smell sweetly, will seem both natural and appropriate.

While for his knowledge of the plant I refer the reader to every hillside and field (would that I might say, to every garden!), there is a peculiarity in the production of the fruit which should not pass unnoted. Strictly speaking, the small seeds scattered over the surface of the berry are the fruit, and it is to perfect these seeds that the plants blossom, the stamens scatter, and the pistils receive the pollen on the convex receptacle, which, as the seeds ripen, greatly enlarges, and becomes the pulpy and delicious mass that is popularly regarded as the fruit. So far from being the fruit, it is only "the much altered end of the stem" that sustains the fruit or seeds; and so it becomes a beautiful illustration of a kindly, genuine courtesy, which renders an ordinary service with so much grace and graciousness that we dwell on the manner with far more pleasure than on the service itself.

The innumerable varieties of strawberries that are now in existence appear, either in their character or origin, to belong to five great and quite distinct species. The first, and for a long time the only one of which we have any record, is the Fragaria vesca, or the "Alpine" strawberry. It is one of the most widely spread fruits of the world, for it grows, and for centuries has grown, wild throughout Northern and Central Europe and Asia, following the mountains far to the south; and on this continent, from time immemorial, the Indian children have gathered it, from the Northern Atlantic to the Pacific. In England this species exhibits some variation from the Alpine type, and was called by our ancestors the Wood strawberry. The chief difference between the two is in the form of the fruit, the Wood varieties being round and the Alpine conical. They are also subdivided into white and red, annual and monthly varieties, and those that produce no runners, which are known to-day as Bush Alpines.


The Alpine, as we find it growing wild, was the strawberry of the ancients. It is to it that the suggestive lines of Virgil refer:—

"Ye boys that gather flowers and strawberries,

Lo, hid within the grass an adder lies."

There is no proof, I believe, that the strawberry was cultivated during any of the earlier civilizations. Some who wrote most explicitly concerning the fruit culture of their time do not mention it; and Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny name it but casually, and with no reference to its cultivation. It may appear a little strange that the luxurious Romans, who fed on nightingales' tongues, peacocks' brains, and scoured earth and air for delicacies, should have given but little attention to this fruit. Possibly they early learned the fact that this species is essentially a wildling, and like the trailing arbutus, thrives best in its natural haunts. The best that grew could be gathered from mountain-slopes and in the crevices of rocks. Moreover, those old revellers became too wicked and sensual to relish Alpine strawberries.

Its congener, the Wood strawberry, was the burden of one of the London street cries four hundred years ago; and to-day the same cry, in some language or other, echoes around the northern hemisphere as one of the inevitable and welcome sounds of spring and early summer.

But few, perhaps, associate this lovely little fruit, that is almost as delicate and shy as the anemone, with tragedy; and yet its chief poetical associations are among the darkest and saddest that can be imagined. Shakespeare's mention of the strawberry in the play of Richard III. was an unconscious but remarkable illustration of the second line already quoted from Virgil:—

"Lo, hid within the grass an adder lies."

The bit of history which is the occasion of this allusion is given in the quaint old English of Sir Thomas More, who thus describes the entrance to the Council of the terrible "Protector," from whom nothing good or sacred could be protected. He came "fyrste about IX of the clocke, saluting them curtesly, and excusing himself that he had been from them so long, saieing merily that he had been a slepe that day. And after a little talking with them he said unto the bishop of Elye, my lord, You have very good strawberries at your gardayne in Holberne, I require you let us have a messe of them." He who has raised fine fruit will know how eagerly the flattered bishop obeyed. According to the poet, the dissembler also leaves the apartment, with his unscrupulous ally, Buckingham.

"Where is my lord protector? I have sent

For these strawberries,"

said the Bishop of Ely, re-entering.

Lord Hastings looks around with an air of general congratulation, and remarks:—

"His grace looks cheerfully and smooth this morning;

There's some conceit or other likes him well."

The serpent is hidden, but very near. A moment later, Gloster enters, black as night, hisses his monstrous charge, and before noon of that same day poor Hastings is a headless corpse.

Far more sad and pitiful are the scenes recalled by the words of the fiendish Iago,—type for all time of those who transmute love into jealousy:—

"Tell me but this—

Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief,

Spotted with strawberries, in your wife's hand?"

"I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift."

was the answer of a man whom the world will never forgive, in spite of his immeasurable remorse.

From the poet Spenser we learn that to go a-strawberrying was one of the earliest pastimes of the English people. In the "Faerie Queen" we find these lines:—

"One day, as they all three together went

To the green wood to gather strawberries,

There chaunst to them a dangerous accident."

Very old, too is the following nursery rhyme, which, nevertheless, suggests the true habitat of the F. vesca species:—

"The man of the wilderness asked me

How many strawberries grew in the sea;

I answered him, as I thought good,

'As many red herrings as grew in the wood.'"

The ambrosial combination of strawberries and cream was first named by Sir Philip Sidney. Old Thomas Tusser, of the 16th century, in his work, "Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry united to as many of Good Housewifery," turns the strawberry question over to his wife, and doubtless it was in better hands than his, if his methods of culture were as rude as his poetry:—

"Wife, into the garden, and set me a plot

With strawberry roots, of the best to be got;

Such, growing abroad, among thorns in the wood,

Well chosen and picked prove excellent good."

Who "Dr. Boteler" was, or what he did, is unknown, but he made a sententious remark which led Izaak Walton to give him immortality in his work, "The Compleat Angler." "Indeed, my good schollar," the serene Izaak writes, "we may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries, 'Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did;' and so if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling." If this was true of the wild Wood strawberry, how much more so of many of our aromatic rubies of to-day.

John Parkinson, the apothecary-gardener of London, whose quaint work was published in 1629, is not so enthusiastic. He says of the wild strawberry: "It may be eaten or chewed in the mouth without any manner of offense; it is no great bearer, but those it doth beare are set at the toppes of the stalks, close together, pleasant to behold, and fit for a gentlewoman to wear on her arme, &c., as a raritie instead of a flower."

In England, the strawberry leaf is part of the insignia of high rank, since it appears in the coronets of a duke, marquis, and earl. "He aspires to the strawberry leaves" is a well-known phrase abroad, and the idea occurs several times in the novels of Disraeli, the present British Premier. Thackeray, in his "Book of Snobs," writes: "The strawberry leaves on her chariot panels are engraved on her ladyship's heart."

After all, perhaps it is not strange that the Alpine species should be allied to some dark memories, for it was the only kind known when the age was darkened by passion and crime.

The one other allusion to the strawberry in Shakespeare is peculiarly appropriate to the species under consideration. In the play of Henry V., an earlier Bishop of Ely says:—

"The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbored by fruit of baser quality."

And this, probably, is still true, for the Alpine and Wood strawberries tend to reproduce themselves with such unvarying exactness that cultivation makes but little difference.

All these allusions apply to the F. vesca or Alpine species, and little advance was made in strawberry culture in Europe until after the introduction of other species more capable of variation and improvement. Still, attempts were made from time to time. As the Alpine differed somewhat from the Wood strawberry, they were brought to England about 200 years later than the tragedy of Lord Hastings' death, which has been referred to.

In connection with the White and Red Wood and Alpine strawberries, we find in 1623 the name of the "Hautbois" or Haarbeer strawberry, the Fragaria elatior of the botanists. This second species, a native of Germany, resembles the Alpine in some respects, but is a larger and stockier plant. Like the Fragaria vesca, its fruit-stalks are erect and longer than the leaves, but the latter are larger than the foliage of the Alpine, and are covered with short hairs, both on the upper and under surface, which give them a rough appearance. As far as I can learn, this species still further resembles the Alpines in possessing little capability of improvement and variation. Even at this late day the various named kinds are said to differ from each other but slightly. There is a very marked contrast, however, between the fruit of the Hautbois and Alpine species, for the former has a peculiar musky flavor which has never found much favor in this country. It is, therefore, a comparatively rare fruit in our gardens, nor do we find much said of it in the past.

There is scarcely any record of progress until after the introduction of the two great American species. It is true that in 1660 a fruit grower at Montreuil, France, is "said to have produced a new variety from the seed of the Wood strawberry," which was called the "Cappron," and afterward the "Fressant." It was named as a distinct variety one hundred years later, but it may be doubted whether it differed greatly from its parent. Be this as it may, it is said to be the first improved variety of which there is any record.

Early in the 17th century, intercourse with this continent led to the introduction of the most valuable species in existence, the "Virginian" strawberry (Fragaria Virginiana), which grows wild from the Arctic regions to Florida, and westward to the Rocky Mountains. It is first named in the catalogue of Jean Robin, botanist to Louis XIII., in 1624. During the first century of its career in England, it was not appreciated, but as its wonderful capacity for variation and improvement—in which it formed so marked a contrast to the Wood strawberry—was discovered, it began to receive the attention it deserved. English gardeners learned the fact, of which we are making so much to-day, that by simply sowing its seeds, new and possibly better varieties could be produced. From that time and forward, the tendency has increased to originate, name and send out innumerable seedlings, the majority of which soon pass into oblivion, while a few survive and become popular, usually in proportion to their merit.

The Fragaria Virginiana, therefore, the common wild strawberry that is found in all parts of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, is the parent of nine-tenths of the varieties grown in our gardens; and its improved descendants furnish nearly all of the strawberries of our markets. As we have seen, the Fragaria vesca, or the Alpine species of Europe, is substantially the same to-day as it was a thousand years ago. But the capacity of the Virginian strawberry for change and improvement is shown by those great landmarks in the American culture of this fruit,—the production of Hovey's Seedling by C. M. Hovey, of Cambridge, Mass., forty-five years since; of the Wilson's Albany Seedling, originated by John Wilson, of Albany, N. Y., about twenty-five years ago, and, in our own time, of the superb varieties, Monarch of the West, Seth Boyden, Charles Downing, and Sharpless.

As in the Alpine species there are two distinct strains,—the Alpine of the Continent, and the Wood strawberry of England,—so in the wild Virginian species there are two branches of the family,—the Eastern and the Western. The differences are so marked that some writers have asserted that there are two species; but we have the authority of Professor Gray for saying that the Western, or Fragaria Illincensis, is "perhaps" a distinct species, and he classifies it as only a very marked variety.

There are but two more species of the strawberry genus. Of the first of these, the Fragaria Indica, or "Indian" strawberry, there is little to say. It is a native of Northern India, and differs so much from the other species that it was formerly named as a distinct genus. It has yellow flowers, and is a showy house-plant, especially for window-baskets, but the fruit is dry and tasteless. It is said by Professor Gray to have escaped cultivation and become wild in some localities of this country.

Fragaria Chilensis is the last great species or subdivision that we now have to consider. Like the F. Virginiana, it is a native of the American continent, and yet we have learned to associate it almost wholly with Europe. It grows wild on the Pacific slope, from Oregon to Chili, creeping higher and higher up the mountains as its habitat approaches the equator. "It is a large, robust species, with very firm, thick leaflets, soft and silky on the under side." The flowers are larger than in the other species; the fruit, also, in its native condition, averages much larger, stands erect instead of hanging, ripens late, is rose-colored, firm and sweet in flesh, and does not require as much heat to develop its saccharine constituents; but it lacks the peculiar sprightliness and aroma of the Virginia strawberry. It has become, however, the favorite stock of the European gardeners, and seems better adapted to transatlantic climate and soil than to ours. The first mention of the Fragaria Chilensis, or South American strawberry, says Mr. Fuller, "is by M. Frezier, who, in 1716, in his journey to the South Sea, found it at the foot of the Cordillera mountains near Quito, and carried it home to Marseilles, France." At that time it was called the Chili strawberry, and the Spaniards said that they brought it from Mexico.

From Mr. W. Collett Sandars, an English antiquarian, I learned that seven plants were shipped from Chili and were kept alive during the voyage by water which M. Frezier saved from his allowance, much limited owing to a shortness of supply. He gave two of the plants to M. de Jessieu, "who cultivated them with fair success in the royal gardens." In 1727, the Chili strawberry was introduced to England, but not being understood it did not win much favor.

Mr. Fuller further states: "We do not learn from any of the old French works that new varieties were raised from the Chili strawberry for at least fifty years after its introduction." Duchesne, in 1766, says that "Miller considered its cultivation abandoned in England on account of its sterility. The importations from other portions of South America appeared to have met with better success; and, early in the present century, new varieties of the F. Chilensis, as well as of the Virginiana, became quite abundant in England and on the Continent."

If we may judge from the characteristics of the varieties imported to this country of late years, the South American species has taken the lead decidedly abroad, and has become the parent stock from which foreign culturists, in the main, are seeking to develop the ideal strawberry. But in all its transformations, and after all the attempts to infuse into it the sturdier life of the Virginian strawberry, it still remembers its birthplace, and falters and often dies in the severe cold of our winters, or, what is still worse, the heat and drought of our summers. As a species, it requires the high and careful culture that they are able and willing to give it in Europe. The majority of imported varieties have failed in the United States, but a few have become justly popular in regions where they can be grown. The Triomphe de Gand may be given as an example, and were I restricted to one variety I should take this. The Jucunda, also, is one of the most superb berries in existence; and can be grown with great profit in many localities.

Thus the two great species which to-day are furnishing ninety-nine hundredths of the strawberries of commerce and of the garden, both in this country and abroad, came from America, the Fragaria Chilensis reaching our Eastern States by the way of Europe, and in the form of the improved and cultivated varieties that have won a name abroad. We are crossing the importations with our own native stock. President Wilder's superb seedling, which has received his name, is an example of this blending process. This berry is a child of the La Constante and Hovey's Seedling, and, therefore, in this one beautiful and most delicious variety we have united the characteristics of the two chief strawberry species of the world, the F. Virginiana and F. Chilensis.

It will be seen that the great law of race extends even to strawberry plants. As in the most refined and cultivated peoples there is a strain of the old native stock, which ever remains, a source of weakness or strength, and will surely show itself in certain emergencies, so the superb new varieties of strawberries, the latest products of horticultural skill, speedily indicate in the rough-and-tumble of ordinary culture whether they have derived their life from the hardy F. Virginiana or the tender and fastidious F. Chilensis. The Monarch of the West and the Jucunda are the patricians of the garden, and on the heavy portions of my land at Cornwall I can scarcely say to which I give the preference. But the Monarch is Anglo-Saxon and the Jucunda is of a Latin race; or to drop metaphor, the former comes of a species that can adapt itself to conditions extremely varied, and even very unfavorable, and the latter cannot.

Excerpt From Success With Small Fruits By E. P. Roe