After last week’s post about the early history of strawberries its time to look at how the various wild species were transformed into garden and commercial varieties by an 18thc botanist and a handful of 19thc nurserymen.
I hope it also shows that we all agree with Dr William Butler, the Elizabethan/Jacobean medic who said…. “Doubtless God could have made a better berry” before adding “but doubtless God never did.”
This divine omission is rapidly being rectified by 20thc scientists and plant-breeders and in the process they are creating an unstoppable multi-billion pound global industry.
The story begins when a 17 year old French botanical wunderkind [if that’s not a linguistic contradiction!] steps onto the scene. He was Antoine-Nicholas Duchesne, the only child of the superintendent of the king’s buildings at Versailles. He was educated by his scholarly father, and encouraged in natural history by Bernard de Jussieu who was “Assistant Demonstrator of the Exterior of Plants at the King’s Garden” with particular charge of hot-house cultivation and the training of gardeners. It also helped that Bernard’s elder brother was the superintendent of the gardens. Under Jussieu’s tutelage Antoine wrote a widely praised book about the indigenous plants of the Paris region. It led to him being given permission to work in the Trianon gardens where he decided to extend the collection of strawberries. The young Duchesne wrote to botanists and plant collectors all over Europe asking for information and specimens. This included Philip Miller at Chelsea and the great Linnaeus himself.
Linnaeus replied positively: “When you have completed the history of the wild strawberries, you will have accomplished something which I long have hoped that some botanists would do; namely, that they would each choose their plant family and examine it most thoroughly; in this manner would soon be attained the ultimate knowledge of plants which now floods botanists with its abundance” [ September 24, 1765]
Duchesne examined all the species and various crosses he could obtain then published his findings in L’Histoire Naturelle des Fraisiers. Unfortunately it was unillustrated because he couldn’t afford the plates but his drawings for them survive.
It was the first serious study of a plant family and attempted to classify strawberry species, identify the date of their introduction, and assess methods of cultivation. Duchesne also discussed the various experiments he had carried out, and included a complicated ‘genealogical’ table showing the relationship between the various species and varieties, which modern botanists using genetics and DNA have found remarkably accurate. And, significantly, Duchesne included the discovery that there were both male and female strawberry plants.
However he also discovered that one kind of strawberry, first mentioned and illustrated by Philip Miller in the 1759 edition of his Gardeners Dictionary, was, shock horror, hermaphrodite. The sex life of strawberries is obviously more complicated than you might expect!
“I suspect it to be a cross of the Scarlet strawberry (F. virginiana) and the Frutillar (Chilean),” he wrote in 1766, describing its resemblance to F. chiloensis as that of a son to a mother, fertilized by a foreign father which he believed could only be F. virginiana. It was named F. ananassa because of its fruits resemblance to a pineapple [ananas in French]. It was to become the ancestor of our modern, big-fruited strawberries, [Antoine Duchesne and his work deserve to be better known, but for more information about him see George Darrow, The Strawberry, Ch.5 ]
Although Duchesne led the world scientifically it was English nurserymen rather than French who took over in matters practical, especially when it came to raise new hybrids. In the late 18thc and early 19thc, new seed-raised derivatives of F. virginiana—the Scarlet strawberry—were introduced so that by 1824 James Barnet, under-gardener for the Royal Horticultural Society, could name twenty-six varieties. He also listed 3 varieties of the Chilean species but said they did not do well in Britain. William Cobbett scathingly commented: “As to the Chili it is very little superior in flavor to the potato.” However it was found to be a suitable parent when hybridizing.
Two men in particular were behind the foundation of the English strawberry industry.
The first was Michael Keen, a market gardener from Isleworth in Middlesex who raised Keen’s Imperial from seed in 1806. It was the first large-fruited commercial variety and with echoes of today, the demands of the market on the selection of seedlings were noticeable.
Keen’s Imperial was a vigorous grower, it had seeds that stood out slightly from the surface of the fruit which gave protection from bruising and made it easier to transport, and it had a strong stalk which meant it kept more fruit above ground “which alone would give it a decided superiority over others in wet weather,” But surprise surprise it lacked flavour. [Transactions of the Royal Horticultural Society, Vol. II. London, p. 102].
Keen then used seeds from the best fruit of Imperial to carry on selecting better strains. Amongst the results was one he rather uninspiringly named Keen’s Seedling which was awarded a medal in 1821 for exceptional fruit, up to two inches in diameter, one and a half inches in length. It was a great market success and Keen turned over much of his 60 acres to growing it making himself a fortune. But Keen’s Seedling was a stroke of good fortune and not the result of a systematic breeding programme. That was the province of the second founder of the strawberry industry, Thomas Knight.
Knight was a Herefordshire gentleman farmer, and the brother and heir of Richard Payne Knight of Downtown Castle. Thomas is best known for being President of the Horticultural Society from 1811-1838, but his real contribution to horticulture was being the first person to systematically experiment with hybridizing fruit and vegetables on a large scale. [Note to self: Knight should be the subject of his own post one day].
In 1817 he raised over four hundred strawberry seedlings from a variety of experimental crosses and he shared runners of all these with other members of the Hort Soc. One outstanding seedling became the Downton strawberry and another the Elton. These were amongst the most popular 19thc varieties and used as the basis for further breeding and selection by nurserymen all over the country.
One of these was Joseph Myatt, who began growing strawberries at Manor Farm in Deptford, using seeds from Knight’s varieties. This resulted in many more new varieties including British Queen, the variety which was used to temp Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles. British Queen was a commercial triumph and dominated the market from its introduction in 1840 until the First World War when plants began to succumb to a virus. So successful was he that Myatt started an annual Strawberry Feast which lasted for days, with tents, bunting and fireworks, and girls dressed as Greek goddesses riding on carts carrying baskets of strawberries. [For more information see: https://deptfordpudding.com/tag/joseph-myatt/ ]
Meanwhile another nurseryman, Thomas Laxton from Bedford, picked up Knight’s mantle and began a yet more extensive breeding programme during the 1860s, even seeking advice from Darwin. The first of his introductions came on the market in 1872 and he and his sons introduced nearly 50 new varieties over the next 50 years, including Royal Sovereign which superseded British Queen as Britain’s favourite strawberry, and is still widely available.
Gardening magazines in the late 19thc show how strawberries were becoming an important market garden crop, and more and more popular with domestic gardeners too. Pages of tips and advice on cultivation, particularly forcing were common, but most reveal also the extraordinary labour intensity of much of the work, particularly on great estates where there were even separate strawberry forcing houses.
If you want to get some of their hints for your own benefit, follow these links to William Robinson’s The Garden magazine for 1890 – volumes 37 and 38 – just search for strawberry and you’ll find dozens and dozens of references to distract you!
I also love what Shirley Hibberd said about growing strawberries. Just remember that “the strawberry is like an alderman and must have good food and plenty” rather than”chips and potsherds” and you will not go far wrong. [Amateur Kitchen Garden, 1877]
But all good things come to an end. Viral diseases and a fungus called red stele root rot appeared and spread rapidly, becoming very destructive in the 1920’s and wiped out most commercial plantings. These had covered almost 13,000 hectares in 1924, although yields were quite low at around 2 to 3 tonnes a hectare.
But strawberries were too popular for this apparent disaster to be accepted and the few plants that proved resistant were used in intensive breeding programmes run by a number of specialised horticultural research institutes. Post-1945 the leading one was based at Cambridge University and it led to the introduction of new varieties bearing the Cambridge prefix. By the 1960s Cambridge Favourite, C.Vigour, C. Prizewinner, & C.Rival made up 80% of commercial production in Britain. Nowadays the mantle has passed to the research station at East Malling in Kent who are working with international partners on a series of different trials and developments.
Even these extensive programmes paled into insignificance as genetics research and analysis have taken over in the last couple of decades. In university and agricultural laboratories all over Europe and America scientists wrestled with chromosomes, diploids and triploids, tetraploids and pentaploids and even heptaploids, octaploids and right up to 16loids [and no I’m not sure what that all means either!] and used new species from Asia to ‘improve’ the strawberry further. There were two major results. Production rose dramatically to over 8 tonnes per hectare by 1996 and at the same time breeders managed to introduce remontant or ‘everbearing’ varieties which extended the cropping season right through to September.
With a longer season, and thus increased annual production the strawberry business began to expand fast because there was more certainty and security. “When I first started growing strawberries it was six weeks. June to July and that’s it. And it tended to be done by apple growers. What they were intending to do is to secure their labour for picking apples later on in the season. And it was a little cash crop. Sometimes it would never work you know; if you had a wet June, the crop would be written off. So no one could actually become a big strawberry grower ‘cos it was so weather dependent.” [A Kent grower quoted by Ehman Calleja in his Ph.D Thesis on the strawberry industry, 2011]
But the new varieties came at the same time as other major changes. Until the early 1990s about 90% of production was still open air, and only 1% under glass or in polytunnels. Now polytunnel production accounts for 95% of all berries grown outdoors. Of course endless acres of polytunnels are far from universally admired, and because they require planning permission there have been endless battles against their introduction usually because of their intrusion into the landscape. Gerard Gilbert in an excellent article on the modern industry says they risk turning parts of “the Garden of England into a sort of Christo and Jeanne-Claude environmental artwork”
But as Calleja explained, the introduction of polytunnels brought forward harvesting well into May and, in combination with the use of ‘everbearer’ varieties, extended the season from six weeks to six months. In 2016 for the first time there were British grown strawberries on the shelves in December.
This increase in production time meant that growers not only increased tonnage but spread their crop to avoid gluts and low prices. At the same time more and more fruit was sold through growers cooperatives to supermarkets. In 1990 only 30% of the crop was sold through supermarkets [Carter et al, Opportunities and change in the British strawberry industry, British Food Journal, 95 (1993), pp. 18–22] now it’s nearly 3 times that. And its huge business for the supermarkets too. In Wimbledon week 2014 strawberries were the top-selling product at Waitrose, but, signficantly, were also “consistently in our top five bestsellers throughout the year.” A similar picture emerges from the other major stores with Sainsbury’s saying they are the top-selling line in the whole business for the summer months. [The Independent, 27 June 2014]
All this meant that that by 2008 the strawberry industry grew more 100,000 tons on less than 5000 ha. This was worth well over 10% of the value of home-produced horticultural crops (DEFRA, 2010). By 2014 overall strawberry business was worth a record £275 m in 2104 and broke the record again with £325m in 2015 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Apart from the visual intrusion of polytunnels there are other downsides. Defra reports on the use of pesticides show some of the dangers but they are nothing compared with the worlds biggest producer. In California which produces about 20% of the world’s total the strawberry business is, like other intensive horticulture, using huge quantities of precious water supplies, but also poisoning the soil at a rapid rate by killing everything in the ground using tear-gas based fumigants to protect the crops. Since it depends on illegal immigrant labour and is based on expensive coastal land it looks like heading for disaster longer term! For more on this listen to Sheila Dillon on The Food Programme 7th August 2016
But the hunt for the perfect strawberry continues: “Strawberries are quite simply the taste of the summer, as inherently British as Wimbledon itself. Innovative research such as this may revolutionize the way we grow the nation’s favourite berry.” [Caroline Spellman, Environment Secretary, 2011, talking about a Defra-funded project to develop a climate change resistant variety. And to see how its being done look at Gerard Gilberts article about Strawberries at East malling. The centre raises 13,000 plants each year and from those only select 1 per cent is selected to go forward for further trial.
For now it looks like the next big breakthrough is Malling Centenary – in your local store this summer. What on earth would Willaim Buter make of that!