For many people, nothing announces the advent of summer more cheerfully than the appearance of fresh strawberries in their local market or garden. One of the most well-loved and versatile fruits out there, strawberries are a favorite throughout the planet and are an economically important plant in many parts of the world. Including both wild varieties and cultivars developed by man, there are over 600 known types of strawberries, and more being developed almost every year.
Strawberries are the fruit of plants in the Fragaria genus, which in turn are members of the Rosaceae (or rose) family of flowering plants. Botanically speaking, the fruit that is commonly called a strawberry isn’t really a berry at all; rather, it is considered an ‘aggregate accessory fruit’ meaning – in simple terms – that it is an enlarged part of the flower’s stem. Strawberry plants will vary in size, shape and (in the case of the fruit) flavor, depending on the specific cultivar. Wild strawberries are native to most temperate regions of the world, and appear to have developed independently on every continent with the exceptions of Antarctica and Australia.
While not as important in ancient times as some other fruits and vegetables, historical records indicate that strawberries have been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia, Europe and South America. The strawberry is mentioned in the Ancient Greek and Roman writings of Homer and Ovid – as a medicinal and decorative plant – and has been cultivated as a fruit in France since the mid-14th century. There is evidence to suggest that the strawberry plant was domesticated by indigenous peoples of South and Central America before the time of Christ, and that wild strawberries were consumed by the native peoples of North America for centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Today, just under 10 million metric tons (over 3 billion pounds) of strawberries are commercially cultivated throughout the world with China – as it so often does – leading production with around 40 percent (roughly 3.7 million tons) of the world’s crop. The United States is a distant second, accounting for 16 percent, and is followed by Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, and Spain. Strawberries are also widely grown by home gardeners and small farmers throughout North and South America, Europe, most of Asia, parts of Africa and other areas with generally temperate climates. Strawberries are grown at some level in every US and Mexican state, Canadian province, and European nation.
While strawberries can still be found growing wild in most parts of the world, the vast majority of the fruits you will find at your grocer or farmers market – as well as the seeds offered for sale to home growers – are cultivars which are the product of crossbreeding by man. Today there are three general ‘types’ of cultivated strawberries – largely defined by their growing and harvesting season: June-bearing, Everbearing, and Season-Long. Strawberries are also sometimes classified (by flowering habits) as short-day, long-day, and day-neutral.
Along with being yummy, strawberries are an excellent source of vitamins C, B6 and 9, as well as magnesium and manganese. The leaves of many strawberry cultivars are also edible. Strawberries are vulnerable to over 200 pests and diseases, and so a wide variety of pesticides are used in commercial cultivation. Some research indicates that roughly 5 percent of the world’s population is allergic to strawberries, although in most cases allergic reactions tend to be mild and not life-threatening.
So what are some of the types of strawberries you may be enjoying this summer?
Normally simply referred to as strawberries, the Garden strawberry is the most widely commercially cultivated strawberry in the world, and what you will most commonly find at your local grocery store or farmers market. Developed by a horticulturalist in Brittany, France in the mid-1700s, the Garden is a hybrid cross between a Chilean and a North American strawberry. A strong, durable plant and fruit, it was reintroduced to the New World shortly after its development, and today accounts for around 90 percent of US commercial strawberry production. Most current strawberry cultivars can trace their lineage back to the Garden strawberry.
The Garden plant grows to about 6 to 8 inches in height and can reach almost 2 feet wide. A sturdy and aggressive plant, it will grow in less than ideal conditions and is quite cold-tolerant, making it the favorite of gardeners and commercial growers throughout the US, Canada, and Europe for more than a century; more recently, it has become the backbone of China’s strawberry production. The plant is an excellent producer (each plant can produce over a quart of strawberries per season) of fairly large, juicy, heart-shaped bright red fruit with the standard sweet, slightly tangy flavor and pleasant aroma most people associate with strawberries.
A very versatile fruit, Garden strawberries can be consumed fresh, either alone or with ice cream, heavy cream, other fruits, or in fresh salads; baked into pies (often with rhubarb), tarts, and shortcakes; made into jellies, jams, preserves, syrup or ice cream; or cooked for use in some savory dishes. They are frequently used in conjunction with alcoholic beverages, most often champagne, Grand Marnier, or rum (strawberry daiquiri). Garden strawberries are also widely used in the perfume and cosmetics industries, most often in lipsticks and glosses.
Developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and released to the market in 1975, the Earliglow is a very popular strawberry cultivar wildly grown throughout the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern United States, and Central Canada. Extremely popular with home growers due to its excellent fruit production and ease of growing, in recent years the Earliglow has become a particular favorite with ‘U-Pick’ farms in the above-mentioned regions.
Specifically developed to resist several common strawberry diseases including root rot, red stele, and verticulum wilt, the Earliglow plant is a June-bearing variety that will usually grow to about 8 inches high and 15 inches wide. Quite resistant to cold, the plant is very low maintenance and will produce medium to large size (which will decrease in size later in the season) classically shaped dark red strawberries with a very sweet flavor and a firm texture. Excellent for all general strawberry uses, Earliglows also stand up to canning and freezing particularly well.
Developed by the University of Maryland in conjunction with the UDSA and released to the market in 1981, the Allstar is widely grown throughout most of North America and parts of South America, Europe, and Asia. Not quite as cold tolerant as Garden or Earliglow, the Allstar is a mid to late season June-bearing plant that will usually grow between 8 and 10 inches tall and spread to about 18 inches wide. The fruit is larger than many other strawberry varieties – often reaching the size of a plum – with a paler than usual orange-red color and a thinnish skin, which makes it difficult to ship. Mostly grown by smaller farmers, U-Pick operations and home gardeners, Allstars are extremely juicy, sweeter than some other varieties, and hold their classic strawberry shape well as they ripen. Their size makes them perfect for slicing, use in fresh salads, and fresh eating; they will generally not stand up well to cooking.
Developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University and released to the market in 1985, the Jewel is a very popular plant with home and smaller commercial growers throughout the US and Canada. A relatively large plant – often growing to over a foot high and spreading over 30 inches – the Jewel is a high yielding June-bearing plant that is quite cold tolerant and adaptable to less than ideal growing conditions. The medium to large fruit is normally bright red inside and out, and somewhat more wedge-shaped than other varieties. They have a thicker than average skin which makes them quite adaptable to shipping and longer lasting after harvest than many other varieties. They have a good, standard strawberry flavor which holds up to cooking, baking and freezing well, and are appropriate for use in all fresh applications.
Also sometimes referred to as the Puget Beauty, the Hood strawberry was developed at the USDA Agricultural Research Station at Oregon State University and released in 1965. Named for Oregon’s Mt. Hood, along with its popularity with home gardeners and small farmers, the Hood is widely commercially cultivated throughout the Western US for use in premium ice creams, jams and preserves. A relatively small (between 6 and 8 inches in height, usually with a 12 inch spread) June-bearing plant, the Hood has a short growing season of only a couple of weeks, and produces a glossy red, mostly round medium-size fruit that turns darker as it ripens. The flavor is very sweet without much tartness and – if you can find them – they are excellent for all fresh applications. The strawberries have a decent shelf-life and ship well, although the plant itself is not particularly tolerant of colder weather.
Developed by horticultural researchers at the University of California and released in 1991, the Diamante is a very adaptable, cold-hardy variety that is grown throughout North America and Western Europe. The plant will normally grow to between 14 and 18 inches tall with an 18 to 24-inch spread and is a very high-yielding plant that consistently produces strawberries from mid-spring through to the first frost, making it a particular favorite with some home gardeners. The bright red fruit is on the large side and has an excellent sweet flavor. Along with fresh eating, the Diamante is widely used in pie fillings and preserves and is particularly popular in the making of chocolate covered strawberries.
Another product of researchers at the University of California and also released in 1991, the Seascape plant will normally grow to between 12 and 16 inches high and spread to about 18 inches. Quite heat tolerant but not particularly fond of the cold, the Everbearing plant is an excellent producer of relatively large, firm, bright red fruit with a pronounced conical shape. Naturally resistant to a number of the viruses that commonly attack strawberry plants, the fruit is somewhat less sweet and a bit tangier than many other varieties, making it quite popular as a pie filling. Unlike most strawberry plants, the Seascape will usually produce two crops per season – one in mid-spring, and the other in mid-fall.
A hybrid of the Diamante released by the University of California in 2005, the Albion plant grows to about 12 inches high with a spread of between 14 and 24 inches. A very fast growing Everbearing variety that does not do as well as some other cultivars in warmer climates, the plant produces large, conical, dark red (inside and out) fruit that is quite firm and has an excellent shelf-life. The Albion strawberry has a higher than average natural sugar content and is one of the sweeter varieties on the market, making it quite popular for use in desserts as well as for fresh eating.
One of the newer strawberry cultivars on the market (and rapidly gaining in popularity), the Archer was developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University and released in 2016. Although the plant is smallish in size – normally growing to between 8 and 10 inches high with about a foot spread – the fruit it produces is extremely large, in most cases twice as large or larger than the standard Garden cultivar and sometimes reaching the size of a small peach. Unlike a number of previous cultivars bred specifically to produce extra-large fruit, the Archer has an excellent aroma and quite an intense strawberry flavor. A cold-hardy variety, the Archer is currently commercially grown in New York State, Michigan, and Minnesota, and is making inroads with home growers throughout the United States and Canada.
Wild strawberries are native to every continent with the exception of Antarctica and Australia and are still prevalent throughout the world. Most wild strawberries fall into one of two general categories: Woodland strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and Coastal strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis), both named for where they are most commonly found. Contrary to what some people believe, wild strawberries are not poisonous and are actually cultivated by home gardeners the world over. Generally speaking, wild strawberry varieties will be roughly half the size of most commercially cultivated cultivars and will have a more concentrated and intensely sweet flavor, often with undertones of violet and rose. Most often red, Wild strawberries can be used for all fresh strawberry applications but are far more delicate than cultivated varieties and will fall apart easily. They are also quite perishable and will need to be used within a day or two of picking.
The Sakura Momo is an extremely rare strawberry variety, cultivated exclusively in the village of Sanagochi in the Southern Japanese Prefecture of Tokushima, under very strict guidelines. Considered to be the most expensive strawberries in the world – routinely selling for over 16,000 yen (about $145 USD) – they are conical shape, plump and large, with a shiny red skin and a pale, whitish interior. Both juicy and firm, Sakura Momo strawberries have a very sweet and rich flavor, with undertones of peach. They are rarely seen outside of high-end markets in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
Though nowhere near as common as their red cousins, there are a number of different varieties of White strawberries that occur in the wild, as well as a number of domesticated cultivars. Generally smaller than most red varieties, White strawberries are (not surprisingly) mostly white, usually with a pink or very light red blush, and red seeds dotting the skin. The interior of the strawberry is ivory or off-white, quite juicy and firm, with an understated strawberry flavor that also features hints of grapes, pineapple or caramel, depending on the variety. Slightly more popular in Europe than in the rest of the world, White strawberries can be used in most red strawberry fresh and cooked applications, and stand up to freezing well.