Strawberry Patch

July 3, 2011

Every now and then I catch myself in an attitude that shows how after eight years, I still haven’t really adjusted to living in Michigan. One of those thoughts occurred to me this week when I was enjoying another bowl of fresh organic Michigan strawberries. Diane says we are paying about five bucks a quart for these babies, and this is cheap by local market standards. I don’t care what we are paying. As ‘Cousin Joe’ Pleasant says,

When you get your big money, buy everything you can get. When you get your big money, buy everything you can get.Cause’ you know you can’t take it with you. You never saw an armored car at a funeral parlor yet.

And I think that basically means strawberries in season. Eat them twice every day because the season really only last two good weeks. I won’t blame you if try to squeeze another week out it, however.

I remember going to the strawberry festival in Plant City, Florida with Diane’s parents, though I don’t remember when. It must have been March, though, because we had to have been on Spring Break from somewhere. I remember it being very good, but I don’t actually think it’s very likely that those were organic berries. And then there were the years trying to grow strawberries in my back yard in Texas. I was a rather poor gardener, at least by the standards I set for myself. I think being trained to garden in Missouri by my grandmother and then trying to do in Texas was a major part of the problem. They do grow strawberries in Texas, though I must confess that I never made it to the big strawberry festival in Poteet. That’s in April.

According to the web, there’s a strawberry festival in Oxnard, CA in May. But Indiana! That’s when I really rekindled my love affair with in-season strawberries. It was in Crawfordsville. In fact it was really the main reason to go to Crawfordsville, the Old Jail and its rotary mechanism notwithstanding. You wander the streets looking at the antique cars or whatever else they decided to haul in this year. And then of course you eat strawberry shortcake on the green. Well that’s how I remember it. My research today suggests that “the green” may have been the grounds of the historic Henry S. Lane home. But on strawberry festival weekend, you’re mostly just focused on eating. The strawberry festival in Crafordsville, Indiana is smack in the middle of June.

So here it is July 4th weekend and we are right at the peak of strawberry season. Somehow, it don’t seem right, but who’s complaining. I’m enjoying strawberries on ice cream, strawberries on Frosted Flakes, strawberries on Frosted Mini Wheats (I am the Kellogg professor), strawberries with yogurt and granola (a little extra sugar never hurt with strawberries). We may not get around to shortcake this year.

There’s one more thing about strawberries. They are monstrosities. Although wild strawberries have been known in Europe forever, and were enjoyed by Native Americans, the fruits are tiny, tiny. They look nothing like what we eat at strawberry festivals. The modern garden strawberry was created in a French monastery when some cultivars from different parts of the world got mixed together inadvertently. Or that’s the story I like. Tracing plant origins is dicey. Every country (sometimes every county) has a favorite son who allegedly made the breakthrough. Here’s two plant scientists, Hokanson and Mass:

In short, the cultivated strawberry is the result of chance hybridizations between two octoploid new world strawberry species, the beach strawberry Fragaria chiloensis, and the scarlet or Virginia strawberry F. Virginiana. The large-fruited F. chiloensis clones imported into Europe from Chile by French spy, Catain Amédée Frézier in 1716, were male sterile and did not fruit until inter-planted with plants of F. virginiana, which served as pollinators. Seedlings resulting from the chance hybridizations began appearing in European botanical gardens and commercial fields in the 1750s, producing plants with fruit characteristics and plant habits unlike those of the commonly grown Scarlet and Chilean types of the period. Additionally, the hybrids were hermaphroditic, as are most commercial strawberry cultivars today.

Hakanson and Mass in Plant Breeding Reviews V. 21 (2001), pp. 138-139

It’s no wonder I had such trouble back in Texas given these disturbing facts about plant sex. Be afraid! Be very afraid.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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4 thoughts on “Strawberry Patch

  1. Our strawberry season here in south central Wisconsin officially ended yesterday, when I picked what look to be the last of the strawberries (of the ones the deer didn’t eat). Wild raspberry season looks to be starting in about a week, unfortunately perfectly synchronized with the strengthening of the mosquito battalions.

    Off topic comment: this month’s National Geographic contains an article about heirloom foods, both animal and vegetable. The article’s focus is on the supposed ability of heirloom varieties and breeds to resist various pressures (heat, drought, pests, etc) that are increasing with climate change. Ergo, we ought to save heirloom foods so that we will be able to continue to feed (the ever increasing numbers of) future people. Paul, you seem to be drawn to music lyrics in this blog, so I ask: if you take requests, could you either sing some Sinatra tunes or comment on this ‘heirloom foods might save us’ argument?

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