A Brief History of the Strawberry

A bowl of strawberries

The Spruce Eats / Abby Mercer

The strawberry is a member of the rose family, with the most common varieties being a hybrid of the wild Virginia strawberry (native to North America) and a Chilean variety. The plant produces succulent, red, conical fruit from tiny white flowers, and sends out runners to propagate.

Why Are They Called Strawberries?

Most likely the word strawberry comes from the Old English streawberige because the plant sends out runners which could be likened to pieces of straw.

But others contend the practice of mulching strawberries with straw or finding them growing wild among matted hay or straw led to their name. And yet, other pundits believe the name came from the practice of selling the berries skewered on a piece of straw in open-air markets as a treat.

Where Do Strawberries Come From?

Strawberries are native to North America, and Indigenous peoples used them in many dishes. The first colonists in America shipped the native larger strawberry plants back to Europe as early as 1600. Another variety, also was discovered in Central and South America, is what the conquistadors called "futilla." Early Americans did not bother cultivating strawberries because they were abundant in the wilds.

Although they have been around for thousands of years, strawberries were not actively cultivated until the Renaissance period in Europe. The plants can last for five to six with careful cultivation, but most farmers use them as an annual crop, replanting yearly. Strawberries are social plants, requiring both a male and a female to produce fruit. Crops take eight to 14 months to mature.

How Cultivation Spread

Cultivation began in earnest in the early part of the 19th century, when strawberries with cream quickly became considered a luxurious dessert. New York became a strawberry hub with the advent of the railroad, shipping the crop in refrigerated railroad cars. Production spread to Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Tennessee. Now 75 percent of the North American crop is grown in California, and many areas have strawberry festivals, with the first one dating back to 1850.

How Strawberries Are Used in Cuisine

Strawberries are delicious eaten out of hand or used fresh in any number of dishes, but they also lend themselves to being cooked.

Tarts and pies are common ways to cook with them, but muffins, quick breads, jams, jellies, preserves, and sauces are other good choices. Fresh berries are delicious uncooked in salads, smoothies, and even wine sangria.

Local strawberry-growing season is typically short in most parts of the country but strawberries can easily be frozen for consumption any time of year. Wash the berries, hull them, lay them on a parchment-lined baking sheet so they are not touching and freeze them until solid. Then transfer the individually quick-frozen berries to a freezer-safe zip-top bag and keep frozen for up to one year. Pop-out as many or as few as you like to use year-round. Frozen berries are especially good for smoothies.