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History of the Strawberry

Agua De Fresa (Pronounced FRAY-sah) is a well-known, traditional Mexican beverage, made with strawberries.

History of the Strawberry

Before the middle ages, not much known of the strawberry. It only appears occasionally in the historical record in Ancient times, but was never a staple agricultural crop as we know it in its modern form. Theophrastus, Hippocrates,Dioscorides and Galen did not even mention it; nor did Cato, Varro,Columella, or Palladius, the four Latin writers on agriculture. Apulius cited the strawberry only for its medicinal value, and Pliny the Elder mentioned in book 21 of his Natural History that the “fraga” was one of the natural products of Italy.

From that point, well over a millennium passes until the next suriving record. A Greek doctor, by the name of Nicholas Myrepsus, discussed the strawberry for its medicinal qualities in the 13th century. By the 14th century, the strawberry had begun cultivation across Europe. In 1368, King Charles V of France reportedly had no less than 1,200 strawberry plants in the Royal Gardens.

“Doubtless its cultivation was crude, but still, it existed. The strawberry was so appreciated by the Duchess of Burgundy that it was sent to her when she visited in Flanders” wrote Bruyerin-Champier (De re Cibaria, 1562).

England has developed an appreciation for strawberry cultivation. The Reverend John Earle compiled a list of early plant names from old lists appearing in documents and vocabularies between the tenth and the end of the fifteenth centuries. The successive modifications of the name from “Streowberige,Strea Berige, Streowberge, Streaw Berian Wisan, Streberi Lef” to “Strebere-Wyse” and “Strawberry” show a long familiarity with the fruit.

The Anglo-Saxon word streow meant hay. According to one theory, the Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 900 called the strawberry the “hayberry” because it ripened at the time the hay was mown. Another guess is that the name derived from the way children strung the berries on straws of grass or hay to sell, a custom still practiced in parts of Ireland today. A more likely explanation is that the Anglo-Saxons used the name “strawberry” to describe the way the runners strew or stray away from the mother plant to find space in which to grow.

By the mid 1500’s in England, the demand for the fruit had stimulated farmers to grow strawberries as a staple crop. This is reflected by a number of sources from the era, from Shakespeare to King Henry VIII. Ruellius, a botanist of the period, also referred to the cultivation of strawberries in his De Natura Stirpium Libri (1536). Describing them as “growing wild in shady places.”

Frézier's somewhat stylized but life-size drawing of the Chilean strawberry as he saw it growing near Concepción.

The Age of Exploration

The English colonization of Eastern North America conferred several advantages to the English, with new strawberry varieties not the least among them. Meanwhile, the Spanish made similar discoveries in Chile, where the locals had apparently been cultivating a strawberry variety for several hundred years, as they had grown to an immense size, never before seen in Europe.  These large berries attracted the attention of a French spy, Lieutenant Colonel Frézier, who had crossed into the pirate-infested waters on the South American coast on a secret mission for the Sun King, King Louis XIV. He drew the picture you see on the right, and also successfully managed to bring a specimen back to France

Upon its arrival, French botanists crossed this Chilean variety (Fragaria Chiloensis) with the North American variety (Fragaria Virginiana) in order to produce the variety of strawberry that we know and love today.

Modern Times

Today, strawberries are cultivated all over the world, with at least 11 million tonnes produced in 2014 alone. This represents a increase of 38% in just 8 years.