The Strawberry, True Love or Sexual Frustration?

Strawberries

What could be more traditionally English, than a bowl of fresh strawberries and cream? Well, the answer is just about anything, because the garden strawberry that is so much part of the Wimbledon scene, is less than 300 years old, of American parentage and French nationality. Furthermore cultivated strawberries are only distantly related to the species that grows wild in Britain having four times the number of chromosomes. This difference is not just a mathematical curiosity but was to have important consequences for the development of the modern fruit. Strawberries with low numbers of chromosomes tend to have hermaphrodite flowers containing both male and female parts, while those with higher numbers are usually like humans in having discrete sexes with individuals being either male or female. Finally, the traditional way to serve fresh strawberries was with sugar and Claret rather than cream.

The origin of the garden strawberry has been portrayed as a romantic love story of boy strawberry meets girl strawberry, but the reality was probably more about sexual frustration. The tale begins in 1556 when the Virginian strawberry first reached Europe from North America.  The native Indians who gathered the fruit to flavour beverages and breads had apparently planted it throughout the woods and meadows of New England. The fruit are not that much larger than those of the British native species, but its introduction was heralded as a great advance because of its wondrous flavour.

Many of the initial attempts at growing the Virginian strawberry failed. Not until 1624 was its cultivation successfully mastered. The reason for this was that in the wild plants of this species are virtually all single-sexed, being either entirely male or female. At the time it was not fully appreciated that the basic fact of life that it takes both males and females to produce offspring also applies to the plant kingdom. It seems probable that in ignorance of this fact, the early strawberry growers discarded their apparently barren male plants in favour of the productive female plants. The result was of course disastrous. Not until someone was fortunate enough to stumble across a rare hermaphrodite plant, whose flowers contained both male and female functions was successful fruit production ensured.

This is how the story remained until 1714 when the large fruited Chilean strawberry was introduced from South America. French naval officer Amedée Frézier brought five plants back from his travels to Versailles. Unfortunately all five of these plants were females and indeed may have been derived from runners from a single plant. No one appears to have remembered the lesson of the Virginian strawberry from a hundred years earlier and although these five plants were distributed to various gardens, they remained as unproductive curiosities for 30 years. Eventually after this long period of fruitless frustration it was realised that by growing alternate rows of the Chilean and Virginian strawberries it enabled the South American females to be pollinated and produce their large fruits. Then, in some unknown place at some unknown time this system of strawberry cultivation gave rise to the modern garden strawberry or pineapple strawberry as it was known. The modern hybrid strawberry is therefore the product of a South American female parent that had been deprived of sex for more than 30 years while being exhibited as a curiosity and was then forced into having sex with a sexual oddity of another species, hardly a text book romance.

This hybridisation event probably occurred on several occasions, but it was in 1766 that the Frenchman Antoine Nicolas Duchesne was the first to realise that this new strawberry possessed characteristics that are intermediate between the two American species. He was able to confirm his theory by performing his own crosses, some of the resulting progeny produced large flavoursome fruits from self-fertile hermaphrodite flowers. He had successfully recreated the modern garden strawberry. However, his studies were cut short by the French Revolution and his theory was not to be accepted until the twentieth century.

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