Of Spies and Strawberries
Strawberries have been known since ancient times. These luscious red fruits have been cultivated on both sides of the Atlantic for centuries, and have even been used medicinally. Strawberries are associated with the goddess Venus for their deep red colour and the fact that the berries resemble a heart in shape. But did you know that Fragaria × ananassa , the most commonly cultivated strawberry in the world, actually owes its existence to a French spy?
The Strawberry's Long History
Strawberries, actually an aggregate fruit and not a berry at all, were eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans. As early as the 14th century people in France were transplanting wild strawberries into their gardens. When Europeans explored the Americas, they found native peoples growing the berries there and brought several New World strawberry varieties back to France.
Two of these berries, a North American plant crossed a South American one, form the basis of the garden strawberry now cultivated all over the world. Fragaria virginiana, the Virginia strawberry plant, was established in Europe in the 17 th century. Fragaria chiloensis, the Chilean or beach strawberry, was brought to France by the intelligence officer Amédée-François Frézier in 1714. And that's where the spy comes in!
The Spy Who Nurtured Strawberries
Frézier was a military engineer who was recruited to work as a spy during the reign of Louis XIV. His mission in South America was to document the military fortifications of the Spanish in Chile and Peru, which he did by disguising himself as a merchant. He also spent a good deal of time documenting the resources of the countries he visited, correcting maps, and studying the agriculture of the New World. One of the plants that interested him was a Chilean strawberry that grew along beaches and had an impressive spread and yield.
This Chilean strawberry had a white or pinkish berry, unlike its European cousins which were held to have a better flavour. But it also had another major trait in its favour: the large size of its berries. The wood strawberry best known at that time had a superior colour and taste, but the berries are quite small. A larger berry that was as hardy as the beach strawberry had been in Chile, would be considered an advancement in strawberry production.
While h e didn't himself cross the two plants, the spy (whose surname coincidentally comes from the French name for the strawberry plant) made detailed observations of various plants he saw in the New World. Frézier sketched the beach strawberries he saw in Chile, and cared for his samples during the six-month voyage back to France. His contribution to botany is still recognized today, and you will sometimes see the abbreviation “ Frez .” next to a botanical name, in his honour.
Image credit s :
Frézier's Chilean strawberry courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain)
Image Credit » http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PerfectStrawberry.jpg