Not too long ago the commercial production of strawberries did not even exist.
Yes, the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid mentioned the strawberry back in the first century A.D. – but they were mentioned as being ornamental – not as a food.
Strawberries are part of the Rose (Rosaceae) family, also known as the “flowering plants” family, and in the 1300’s to 1500’s strawberry cultivation spread slowly across Europe but remained a rather unappreciated fruit.
During the 1600’s a variant known as the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) reached Europe from North America. Cultivation of this relatively hardy species spread gradually and the plants carried small fruit that were small, or tough, or lacked flavour. This fruit gained some popularity in the late 1700’s and 1800’s when it became popular in England.
In the meantime, a French spy brought the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) from Chile to France in 1714. This specific fruit had a quality that lacked in other species: Size. It had fewer, but larger flowers and ultimately larger fruit. However, the plant was not as hardy and was difficult to grow inland, far from the mild coastal climates.
The French accidentally pollinated the Chilean strawberry with the Virginia strawberry when female Chilean plants were inter-planted with male Virginian plants and a natural hybrid was formed – the modern strawberry (Fragaria ananassa).
All modern strawberry varieties have descended from this accidental crossing of the Virginia and Chilean strawberries. The transition from these native species to modern variants was a long process. It involved the hybridization of both species, then hybridization of their descendants, and back-crossing to the original parents. Each time selecting plants with desirable traits for further breeding.
Next time you bite into one of these delicious fruits, be reminded of all the hard work, the plant-loving spy, and the accidental planting that all came together to bring us a fruit fit for the gods.