The peak season for flavorful, naturally sweet strawberries is late spring. Local strawberries at the peak of their natural season are most likely to be the tastiest strawberries you will eat all year.
Strawberries are perennial herbs that grow in temperate zones all over the world. There are native strawberries in Europe, Central Asia, North America, and South America.
There are more than 600 varieties or cultivars (cultivated varieties) of strawberries. They come in many sizes, colors, and flavors.
The strawberry flesh you eat is actually a false fruit, a swollen edible stalk. The tiny yellow dots or seeds that cover the berry’s surface are the plant’s real fruits.
There are three major classifications of strawberries: June-bearing strawberries (also called summer strawberries), everbearing strawberries, and alpine and wild strawberries.
There are hundreds of cultivars of June-bearing and everbearing strawberries. What they all have in common is that they are modern hybrids—mostly human-made creations.
June-bearing strawberry varieties produce one crop per year in late spring or early summer, usually from mid-May through early-July in the Northern Hemisphere but as early as April in California and Florida. Most June-bearing strawberries are plump and red, but their flavors vary. The fruit production of June-bearing summer strawberries is triggered by the lengthening daylight hours of late spring and summer.
Everbearing strawberry varieties begin setting fruit before June-bearing strawberries and produce strawberries continuously through the late spring, all summer, and into the fall. Like June-bearing strawberries, everbearing strawberries are plump and red, but their flavors vary by variety. The fruit production of everbearing strawberries is mostly unaffected by day length, however, the peak of their harvest is early summer with a second crop usually in the early fall.
June-bearing and everbearing strawberry varieties are sometimes lumped together and called “modern strawberries” and sometimes “garden strawberries” because they are hybrids. Both categories can be traced back to the cross-breeding of two important natural strawberry varieties: the Chilean strawberry (also called the pine or beach strawberry) and the North American strawberry (also called the scarlet or Virginia strawberry).
Where strawberries originated. The North American strawberry was discovered by Europeans settling in Massachusetts in 1621. The North American strawberry was found growing along much of the eastern coast of what was to become the United States of America. It was also called the Virginia strawberry. This strawberry which was noted for its excellent flavor and scarlet coloring was introduced to Europe in 1624.
The Chilean strawberry was discovered in the Andes mountain range of Chile by the French military explorer François Amédée Frézier in 1714. Frézier returned the Chilean strawberry to France. The Chilean strawberry was noted for its large size.
Already growing in Europe before the introduction of the North American strawberry and the Chilean strawberry were two native or wild European strawberries: the alpine strawberry and the musk strawberry. Both the alpine and musk strawberries produced very small but very flavorful berries over a short season. These berries could be green, white, yellow, or red when fully ripe.
By the seventeenth century alpine and musk strawberries made their way from the wild into European gardens including the royal gardens of the Louvre in Paris. There the musk strawberry came to be known also as hautbois (from the French haut bois) or best berry and is still valued today for its flavor and fragrance.
Wild strawberries are also called by the French name fraises des bois—strawberries from the woods. Many gourmets say today that the flavor and scent of fraises des bois surpass cultivated strawberries.
In European gardens, the alpine and musk strawberries met the North American and Chilean strawberries, and, more importantly, the two western hemisphere strawberries met each other. In about 1750 in France, the Chilean strawberry from the west coast of South America and the North American strawberry from the east coast of North America were crossed. The result was the modern strawberry—popularly known as the pineapple strawberry.
The pineapple strawberry is a large, deep red strawberry with a rich, sweet pineapple flavor.
Modern strawberry cultivars. From the pineapple strawberry many modern cultivars have since been developed. There are hundreds of named strawberry cultivars. One of the most famous is the Royal Sovereign which was developed in 1892. The Royal Sovereign is considered by some to be the greatest strawberry of all time. It is large, bluntly conical strawberry with a deep red color, and intense sweet flavor.
The most far reaching development of the modern strawberry began in 1945 when the University of California started an ongoing strawberry hybridization program. The results—which continue–have been the introduction of larger, hardier, and more prolific strawberries that are easily shipped long distances. Not all are the sweetest tasting.
The strawberries you find nearly year-round in grocery stores today are in all likelihood modern hybrids that may have not been locally grown.
Best strawberry varieties. Well known June-bearing or summer strawberry varieties include Allstar, Earliglow, Guardian, Jewel, Lateglow, Robinson, Surecrop, Sparkle, and Winona.
The best known everbearing varieties include Fort Laramie, Ogalla, Ozark Beauty, Quinault, Tristar, and Tribune.
Cultivated varieties of alpine and wild strawberries include Baron Solemacher, Pineapple Alpine Rugen, and Yellow Alpine.
Choose. Select plump, bright, shiny red berries, with fresh looking caps. Dull colored strawberries are usually overripe. Avoid strawberries that are soft or moldy.
All strawberries large and small can be sweet and juicy; however, smaller berries may be more flavorful because they contain less water.
The smallest bump will bruise a strawberry and cause it to rot. One rotten strawberry can contaminate other berries in a container.
Store. Cover and refrigerate strawberries without washing for 1 or 2 days. Lightly wrap the top of the container in plastic. Avoid leaving them at room temperature or in the sun.
Do not crowd or press strawberries and remove any damaged berries as soon as possible.
Washed or overripe strawberries will keep longer if you add a bit of sugar. Add lemon or apple juice to berries to reduce the loss of vitamin C after they have been cut and exposed to air.
Whole, sliced, quartered or crushed strawberries can be frozen.
Prepare. Wash strawberries when you are ready to use them. Rinse in cold water but avoid soaking strawberries. They will absorb water and lose flavor. Do not hull strawberries until you are ready to use them or they may lose juice.
Hull strawberries with a small paring knife cutting out the core in a cone shape.
Serve. Use fresh as a dessert fruit or serve with cream and a little sugar or in fruit salads, mousses and ice cream. Use strawberries in pies, cakes, and soufflés. Process strawberries into jams, jellies, preserves, sweets, and fruit juices. Steep them in wine, champagne, brandy, or liqueur.
Flavor partners. Strawberries have a flavor affinity for almonds, balsamic vinegar, blackberries, blueberries, champagne, custards, heavy cream, kirsch, lemon, melon, sour cream, sugar, walnuts, and whipped cream.
Nutrition. Strawberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of potassium and folic acid, vitamin B and magnesium.
The botanical name for the European wild strawberry is Fragaria vesca; the Chilean strawberry, F. chiloensis; the North American strawberry, F. virginiana; the musk strawberry, F. moschata; and the garden or pineapple strawberry, F.x ananassa.
The name strawberry may be a corruption of the English word “strew.” The strawberry plant strews or scatters new plants when it sends out runners and the fruit is strewn among its leaves. As well, the yellow achenes or seeds of the strawberry plant are straw colored.
The Latin name for the strawberry Fragaria is derived from the Latin fraga or fragrance referring to the fruit’s fragrance.