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Sex and the Single Strawberry — Part I

The Europeans were awestruck by the wild strawberries of the New World. The berries spread their runners, taking over the forest floors and meadows. “We can not sette down foote but tred on strawberries,” one English colonist remarked.

A “pioneer species,” to use writer Peter Hatch’s phrase, this member of the rose family flourished on the soil that the Indians and the European settlers had cleared of trees and brush. “Like all wild fruits, the strawberry responded to the additional light that resulted from the disturbance of the mature forest by bearing more and larger berries on a rich carpet of leaves,” Hatch said. In time, both Europeans and Indians took the strawberries from the wild and transplanted them to their gardens.

New arrivals were stunned by the untrammeled, abundant fruit. “The land is fertile in soyle to produce all manners of plants . . . here are also strawberries,” an early planter wrote to King James I. “I have lien downe in one place in my corne field and in the compasse of my reach have filled my belly in the place.” Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony, was amazed that “in some parts where the natives have planted, I have many times seen as many as would fill a good ship.”

Years later, the 20th century American critic, Lewis Mumford, tried to imagine what the thickets of berries would look like. “They grew so thick that . . . horses’ fetlocks seemed covered in Blood.”

The strawberry became an important form of sustenance. The Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island, who called the heart-shaped fruit, “wuttahimneash,” made bread from strawberries and cornmeal. “The Indians bruise them in a mortar and mix them with meale and make “berry bread,” Roger Williams wrote in his journal. The Native Americans also reveled in “veritable strawberry sprees, eating the delicate berries, seasoning their meat with them, drinking strawberry soup or a tea made from the leaves,” writer Virginia Scully recounted.

The Virginia strawberry, as the fruit came to be known, had made its way across the Atlantic by the early 17th century. Although larger than the European fruit, it was much tinier than today’s plump berry.

The prospects for the Virginia strawberry, however, were limited. The North American import could not be crossed with the European strawberry to produce a better fruit because their respective genes clashed. The Virginian would have to wait for more fortuitous circumstances to take center stage.

The Europeans cherished their own wild strawberry. The “fraise de bois” (wood strawberry), which grew in the meadows and forests, was the darling of artists and writers. Eighteenth century French philosopher Diderot observed affectionately that the tiny red berries resembled the “tips of wet-nurse breasts.” The fruit’s “pleasing, winey taste,” as one writer put it, made it especially appetizing.

From classical times, it had been the wild, not the domesticated, strawberry that was coveted. The Romans never cultivated the fruit, which Ovid celebrated in a poem about the giant, Polypheme, who was wooing Galatea. “With thine own hands thou shalt thyself gather the soft strawberries growing in the woodland shade,” he promised the young woman. The blessed fruit, Ovid felt, originated in an idyllic Golden Age.

To tamper with such pristine beauty, therefore, was to interfere with perfection. “Doubtless God could have made a better berry but doubtless God never did,” the 16th century English physician William Butler gushed.

Gradually, hesitatingly, European gardeners began domesticating the wild berry. As it moved from the woods to the garden, however, the nature of the fruit changed only slightly.

The strawberry also captured the interest of botanists and horticulturists. It “sends forth many strings, which disperse themselves far abroad, whereby it greatly increaseth,” noted 17th century English herbalist John Gerard. The plant gets its name, many scholars believe, from the word to “strew,” which describes the way it spreads out over the ground.

Initially, gardeners had planted the strawberry less for its flavor and more for its ornamental and medical benefits. Medieval herbalists invested the fruit, the leaves, and the roots with curative properties. The strawberry, it was said, alleviated throat infections, fever, kidney stones, and headaches. Eating the fruit, a 16th century French herbalist asserted, “comforteth the stomache and quench the throat.”

Herbalist Gerard touted strawberry water as a tonic: “The distilled water drunk with white wine is good against passion of the heart, reviving the spirits, and making the heart merrie.”

The faith in the medicinal powers of the strawberry would be equally strong in America. Trading on the reputed cooling and other healthful properties of its leaves, the Shakers marketed large quantities of the fruit.

Strawberries also beautified and cleansed the skin, many women believed. Herbalists lent their weight to this view. Pimples disappeared, according to the 16th century commentator William Langham, after the skin was layered with a strawberry solution. In his Herball of the same era, John Gerard praised strawberry leaves as a way to heal “redness and heate of the face.”

Beginning in the Middle Ages, a cosmetic of distilled strawberry water became popular among women of the aristocracy. Mme. Talien, one of Mary Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, the story goes, loved to immerse herself in a bath of strawberry and raspberry juice. Her attendants then sponged her skin with milk and perfumes, making it even pinker. Each session required 22 pints of crushed strawberries.

The rich and well-bred had more lavish goals for the new fruit. They were ardent consumers and enthusiastic displayers of the strawberry. The ennobling fruit was planted in the grand houses of Europe. In 1368 King Charles V directed his gardeners to grow the plants in the royal gardens of the Louvre. So avid was Louis X for the strawberry that he had glass houses constructed to force early blooming of the fruit.

Next month, in Part II, the Virginia strawberry continues its quest for a mate. A new chapter in the fruit’s history begins when the spy Francois Frezier (whose family name, coincidentally, comes from the French word for strawberries), returns to France from his mission in Latin America carrying Chilean strawberries.


Savoring Strawberries

Country Pleasures (farm stand every Sunday, 9am-1pm, Dupont Circle Farmers Market (20th St. bet. Mass. Ave. & Q St., NW) This farm makes delicious strawberry and rhubarb preserves.

Jolt ’N’ Bolt (1918 18th St., NW; tel., 232-0077). This Adams Morgan coffee house offers a Greek yogurt berry parfait, an invention of owner Connie Lee. Strawberries are among the fruits that top this treat. The shop also sells an Italian soda made with strawberry syrup.

Note: For those who wish to explore the story of the strawberry, the most authoritative source is Stephen Wilhelm’s History of the Strawberry (ANR Publishing, 1974).

Copyright (c) 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joel Denker. All rights reserved.