Plant 288

Fragaria species (Rosaceae)


Strawberries are quintessential summer fruits in Britain, and a popular fruit globally. The flavours and fragrances of the hundreds of different known strawberry cultivars are created by a complex cocktail of esters, terpenes and furans.

In 2017, nearly 13 million tonnes of the fruit were harvested worldwide. 75% of this was produced by just six countries; the leading producer was China. Moreover, this production comes from plants derived from an accidental hybridisation in mid-eighteenth-century France between two American Fragaria species.

European wild strawberries, such as Fragaria vesca, have been harvested and cultivated since at least Roman times. However, because these species can behave as if they are male or female, strawberries developed a reputation as unreliable fruit producers. Two American species changed that; Fragaria virginiana, which is widespread in North America, and Fragaria chiloensis, which ranges along the Pacific coast of the Americas from the Aleutian Islands to Chile.

Fragaria virginiana was introduced to Europe in the early 1600s. At about the same time, travellers were bringing back reports from Chile of another strawberry, with huge fruits, that was apparently cultivated by the indigenous peoples. It was not until 1714 that this species, Fragaria chiloensis, was introduced from Chile to Europe by the French mathematician, engineer and spy Amédée-François Frézier (1682-1773). Only five of Frézier's plants survived the arduous journey back to France, and these were spread among prominent individuals. These few plants could only be propagated slowly, and were unreliable fruit producers.

By 1750, offspring of Frézier's strawberry, established in Brittany, were being interplanted with Fragaria virginiana and the farmers were reaping the benefits of reliable fruiting to produce some of the best strawberries in Europe.

In the early 1740s, Philip Miller began growing a strawberry in the Chelsea Physic Garden that he regarded highly, although he had little idea of its origin. The fruit, named 'Ananas', is the modern cultivated strawberry, now called Fragaria x ananassa. The mystery of Miller's strawberry was solved by the botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne (1747-1827) as he experimented with artificial crosses among Fragaria species. It was a hybrid between Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria chiloensis.

Despite its name, the strawberry is not a botanical berry, whilst the controversial etymology of 'straw' has filled many academic papers. Morphologically, strawberry flesh is derived from the flower's receptacle, the top of the flower stalk. Strawberry fruits proper, technically called achenes, are the yellow-brown flecks on the surface.

Further reading

Darrow GM 1966. The strawberry: history, breeding and physiology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Schwieterman ML et al. 2014. Strawberry flavor: diverse chemical compositions, a seasonal influence, and effects on sensory perception. PLoS ONE 9: e88446.

Stephen Harris