Is there any one fruit synonymous with the start of summer as the strawberry? Fresh off the plant, on cereal, topping a cake or served with ice cream, these fruits are at the top of my early summer enjoyment list.
The strawberry plant is a member of the Rosaceae family (genus Fragaria). The strawberry is actually not a true fruit, as the seeds are located on its outside. The name Strawberry is of uncertain origin but probably comes from “strewn berry” which is an early description of a strawberry plant with its runners strewn about the ground.
History reports vary on its origin, but many believe it was first found in Rome in 234 BC. It was commonly used for medicinal purposes. The bright red colour and heart shape form of the strawberry has led to many mythological stories. One such myth is that Venus wept tears for the loss of Adonis and her heart shaped tears, mixed with his blood and dropped to the ground. As this fluid seeped into the ground, strawberries grew in their place. Fragole have maintained a steady presence in Italy ever since being written about by Pisanelli in 1611.
Europeans found strawberries growing in the Americas in 1588. These strawberries were superior to European varieties in size, flavour and beauty. During the 1700s many new varieties were developed in North America by crossing of American and European varieties. While California produces the majority of the strawberries consumed in North America, many people prefer the sweet delicate taste of the smaller locally produced varieties. Italian growers have developed several new varieties that are closer to the wild strawberries than the large, white-cored, hollowed American varieties.
Fragole are grown in both the North and South of Italy and imported to the rest of Europe. The Lazio and Emilia-Romagna areas are blessed with fragolini di bosco (strawberries of the wood). These tiny, wild berries are very fragrant and delicious. They are honoured each year in Nemi with a two month harvest festival. In the Basilicata area, a new variety was developed in 2013. It is grown following strict guidelines and is marketed as ‘Candonga Fragola Top Quality’.
Strawberries are relatively simple to grow. In a small patch they will can produce for many years. In hanging planters they can provide a dramatic touch on the patio. They enjoy a slightly acidic soil and a full sun location. While warm sunny days produce the sweetest berries, they are a cool season crop that do not fare well with 30+degree temperatures. Keeping water off the leaves will yield a firmer fleshed berry that will keep longer after being picked. A layer of mulch (straw?) preserves moisture and keeps the berries clean. When berry production ends for the year, a harsh shearing of the plant tops allows the plants to rejuvenate quite nicely.
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