Strawberries are quintessentially English. Or so you’d think. But actually they’re not. Although there are indigenous European strawberries the ones we eat are hybrids derived from a species from New England and another from Chile introduced surreptitiously into France in the early 18thc. This species didn’t really reach Britain until the mid-18thc and really didn’t become common in gardens until the 19th.
Why? Because at first they didn’t fruit. Why not? Because no-one realised that strawberries had sex – let me rephrase that – that most strawberry plants were either male or female. But once they did that’s when British gardeners and nurserymen took over and led the world in developing better and better domestic and commercial – hermaphrodite – varieties.
But strawberries have always had more than just food appeal. In the Middle Ages they were one of the more revered symbols of the Virgin Mary but they also had another more erotic and voluptuous side to them as well.
As a result although this post started out as a ‘normal’ piece of horticultural history I got diverted along the way with other strawberry-related stuff so its ended up becoming two posts instead!
So read on to find out more about the early history and imagery of our favourite fruit…
The word strawberry probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘strew’ because of the way the runners ‘strew’ or stray away from the mother plant, and there are just three European strawberry species —Fragaria vesca [which comes in both red and white forms] , F. moschata, and F. viridis [the green strawberry]. As always the taxonomy and distinctions are more complicated than it might at first appear but if you really want to go into the detail check the references at the end of the post].
Strawberries have a long history in the classical and mediaeval world. They stand apart from all other symbolic fruit being used in art all across mediaeval Europe as what Elizabeth Haight, in her book, Symbolism of the Great Masters called the symbol of “perfect righteousness” , “good works” and modesty.
They might only have been the tiny wood strawberry Fragaria vesca but they are still conspicuous for their fragrance and jewel-like colour. Their tripartite leaves stood for the Trinity, their fruits were drops of Christs blood and the five petals of their pure white flowers were reminders of the five wounds of the Passion.
As a result the strawberry – either whole plants or in parts – is a common feature in paintings, particularly of the Virgin and of the Resurrection, as well as in the illuminations on manuscript, where they often feature in the elaborate borders.
This association is presumably one of the reasons that amongst the insignia of princes and the higher ranks of the nobility are the strawberry leaves on their coronets. I’ve found it hard to track down when strawberry leaves were first used but the coronet itself first appears in the fourteenth century. Dukes, marquesses and earls all have strawberry leaves, and in 1661 Charles ordered that royal princes should also have them.
But the strawberry didn’t just appeal to the Virgin Mary and the saints. There is an alternative interpretation – where strawberries are seen as sensuous and erotic – so even if they don’t have sex they help others to! This is particularly apparent in the “Garden of Delights,”by Hieronymous Bosch (1455-1516). It’s a complicated picture capable of all sorts of interpretations which sadly we don’t have time to go into – but there’s not much doubt that the people in and around strawberries are not just praying!
The picture was owned by Philip II of Spain and hung at El Escorial, his austere palace in the mountains outside Madrid. In an inventory of 1593 it was called “The Strawberry”, and later the librarian there wrote that it was about “the vanity and glory and passing taste of strawberries… hardly remembered once it was passed.”
If you want to explore the picture further – in minute detail and with an optional commentary – go this new interactive website:
This more earthy association lives on: think of Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles being seduced by strawberries : He asked her if she liked strawberries ‘Yes’, said Tess, ‘when they come.’ ‘They are already here.’ D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the ‘British Queen’ variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth. ‘No—no!’ she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. ‘I would rather take it in my own hand.’ ‘Nonsense!’ he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
A scene like that must have caused more than a few Victorian eyebrows to be raised, and you can’t imagine the same effect had Tess been offered an apple.
A similar charged feeling is conjured up in Othello: “Tell me but this” says Iago, “have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief spotted with strawberries in your wife’s hand.”
This more racy view of the strawberry probably comes from its association with sin and temptation. As a plant it creeps low on the ground traits it shares with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
The dual imagery of the strawberry – its association with the Virgin and saints and at the same with sin and temptations also comes together in another well known picture showing the Virgin in a Hortus Conclusus.
The strawberry is there next to angel… but lurking just below it is a devil.
And now back to more mundane matters for a moment….
We know strawberries were in cultivation in Europe from around 1300 when various French sources show them transplanted from the wild to the garden, probably as much for their flowers as for their fruit. Large numbers were planted in the gardens at the Louvre in 1368 and in 1375 the Duke of Burgundy order four sections of his garden Chateau de Couvres, near Dijon, turned over to their cultivation.
Evidence from Britain is less clear but they were clearly being grown deliberately by the 15thc, or at least collected from the wild in large quantities, because they are mentioned in John Lidgate’s”London Lickpenny” of 1430 as a kind of street cry. “Then unto London I dyde me hye// Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse// ‘Gode pescode’, one began to cry, //’Strabery rype, and cherrys in the ryse.’ ”
But as usual it is medics and apothecaries who take most notice of strawberries – for their medical uses rather than just to eat. The Grete Herball, an English translation of a French text was published in 1526 : “Fragaria is an herbe called strabery. It groweth in woodes and grenes, and shadowy places. It is pryncypally good agaynst all evylles of the mylt. The juice therof drunken with hony profyteth mervaylously. For them that take brethe with payne as it were syghynge. The juice therof take in drinke white peper heleth it. Strawberyes helpeth coleryke persones, comforteth the stomake, and quencheth thyrst”
They found their way to the domestic garden too. Thomas Tusser in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” (1557), suggests one of the tasks for September is
“Wife, into the garden and set me a plot With strawberry roots, the best to be got; Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood, Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.
Tusser is backed up by Thomas Hill: “They be much eaten at all men’s tables in the sommer time with wine and sugar, and they will grow in gardens until the bigness of the mulberry. [The strawberry] requires small labour, but, by diligence of the gardener, becometh so great that the same yieldeth faire and big berries as the berries of the bramble in the hedge.” [Gardener’s Labyrinth (1593 edition] Not much sign even there of the luscious large fruit that we know today. Hill also recognizes there were two colour variants but thinks that instead of this being a natural occurence it is because “Certaine skilful men, by a diligence and care, procure the beries to alter from the proper red coloure, into faire white delectable to the eye.”
And in signs of how serious plants useful properties were thought to relate to their shape/growing habits etc Hill says that strawberries have “a maruellous innocencie” despite the fact they ” creepe loww by the Earth, and that diuerse venemous things creepe ouer the Hearbes, yet are these in no manner infected with any venemous contagion.”
So when did all this change, and big juicy strawberries arrive on the scene? Still quite a while yet, but sometime in the first quarter of the 17thc a new strawberry was introduced from the New World. It’s not much to look at but it was to prove a useful parent for future generations of strawberry.
This was Fragaria virginiana and the earliest mention of it is probably in Gaspar Bauhin’s Pinax, printed in Paris in 1623. It appears in Parkinson as the Virginian Strawberry which “carryeth the greatest leafe of any other, except the Bohemian [F. moschata], but scarce can one Strawberry be seene ripe among a number of plants; I thinke the reason therof to be the want of skill or industry to order it aright.” This was almost certainly the berry growing in John Tradescant’s garden in Lambeth, listed in his catalogue of 1656 as Fragaria nova anglia nondum descripta, and of course he may well have bought it back himself from his voyage to America. BUT still no big red juicy fruit.
The North American interloper was joined about a hundred years later by another from Chile. Sometimes known as the beach strawberry Fragaria chiloensis bought one great advantage the other known species didn’t have: the size of its berries. Although it was known and cultivated in the Spanish empire in South America it seems never to have made it back to Europe until it was spotted by Amedee Frazier a young French engineer/cartographer [and spy!] and taken back to France by him in 1714. [ 1717 English translation of Amadee Francois Frazier’s book A Voyage to the South-Sea. The story of how Frazier’s got his 5 strawberry plants home is a good one – indeed his whole life story is fascinating – even more so because his name is, with good reason, a corruption of fraise the French word for strawberry. To find out more about him check his Wikipedia entry and George Darrow’s The Strawberry , ch.5 (1966). Anyway once the plants were safely presented to Louis XIV one was given to the Jardin des Plantes but 2 others found their way to Brest in Brittany, the HQ of the French navy, where Frazier was based and they became the basis for the entire French strawberry industry. But not immediately. One of the unknown unknowns for those trying to propagate and cultivate these new introductions was that all of Frazier’s plants were female and thus could not produce berries unless pollinated.
As was common for time gardeners and botanists all across Europe exchanged new plants all the time. A runner of Fragaria chiloense ended up at Leiden Botanic Garden in the Netherlands, where it was soon christened “Fragaria crassis rugosis soliis flore semine carens” : the “Chili strawberry without blooms or fruits.” [ Boerhaave, Index Alter Plantarum Quae in Horto Académica. Lugduno- Batavo Aluntur, 1720].
It had also reached Chelsea Physic Garden where Philip Miller included it as one of the 5 known species in his Gardener’s Dictionary in 1735. In later editions he adds more information about its history and habits.
The fact that nobody realised all the Fragaria chiloense plants that had been bought back to Europe were female caused some problems! Although it was possible for them to be pollinated by some other strawberry species the commonest sort – F. vesca – was not one of them. Even when the chiloenses were within pollination range of F.virginiacum or F.moschata the results were erratic and disappinting. Except in Brittany.
Why Brittany? It’s because the maritime climate there is very similar to that of F.chiloense‘s coastal homeland, so Breton market gardeners soon noticed that when the new strawberries were close to F. moschata and F. virginiana they fruited in profusion. All attempts to repeat this success in the Loire Valley, France’s traditional horticultural capital failed and coastal Brittany remained the only place in Europe where the Chilean variety succeeded and became a commercial crop.
So where did the great British strawberry industry come from? All will be revealed next week with news of a 17 year old botanical wunderkind and some enterprising 19thc gardeners…
In the meantime if you want to know more try checking out:
Lawrence Ross, The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare, Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 7 (1960), pp. 225-240
Walter S. Gibson, The Strawberries of Hieronymus Bosch, Cleveland Studies in the History of Art, Vol. 8 (2003), pp. 24-33
George Darrow, The Strawberry, (1966)
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