Wild strawberries grow on every continent except Africa, Australia and New Zealand. But you wouldn’t want to eat most of them as they are generally really small and tasteless, and some aren’t even red. Because strawberries grow wild on so many continents, the history of the strawberry and its uses is too vast to document, but here are some highlights on the fascinating story of strawberries:
As stated, wild strawberries are rather small and flavorless compared to the cultivated strawberries that we currently enjoy. Archaeologists have found wild strawberry seeds at Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Iron Age digging sites revealing that early man also ate strawberries. The popularity of strawberries has dwindled and rose over the ages; however, evidence of actual cultivation only starts from the 14th century.
Wild strawberries were collected and used remedially by the ancient Romans as far back as 230 BC to cure anything from depression to kidney stones. In the first century A.D the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid mention the strawberry, but they referenced it as ornamental, not as a food or medicine. For a long time, strawberries were held in contempt because of an association with snakes and other dangerous creatures. The strawberry’s low growing habit caused Virgil to warn children to look out for serpents lurking in the foliage when picking the wild fruit. This distain for strawberries because of their affiliation with serpents and other dangerous creatures continued into the 12th century when Saint Hildegard of Germany declared the strawberry unfit for human consumption because it grew on the ground where snakes and toads could wriggle and crawl upon the fruits.
By the 1300’s strawberries finally started shedding their bad reputation and gardeners in France were transplanting the woody strawberry (Fragaria vesca) from the wild into their gardens. In 1368 Charles V of France planted 1,200 strawberry plants in the gardens of the Louvre, and a few years later the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy planted thousands of plants at their Dijon estate. In the early 15th century western European monks decorated their illuminated manuscripts with wild strawberries, and depictions of strawberry fruits and plants can be found in Italian, Flemish, German, and English art. Strawberry designs were often carved onto altars and on the top of church and cathedral pillars to symbolise perfection and righteousness.
This red, heart-shaped fruit now enjoys being associated with romance, passion, innocence, and healing.