By in Gardening

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.


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Image credit s :

Strawberry photo by Rlaferla /Wikipedia ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Frézier's Chilean strawberry courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain)

Image Credit »

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maramadalina wrote on December 29, 2014, 7:10 PM

Interesting history of strawberries. I love these fruits. Strawberries are delicious.

Ruby3881 wrote on December 29, 2014, 7:15 PM

Apparently, they are the most popular of all berries. I know they're my favourite!

bestwriter wrote on December 29, 2014, 7:22 PM

Strawberries look pretty and inviting but need not taste good unless they are eaten with cream and a touch of sugar. I was in Italy and picked a few from a shop. I was disappointed as they were sour. I had no cream around to add and so had to chuck them away. emoticon :sad:

Ruby3881 wrote on December 29, 2014, 7:24 PM

I wonder if the berries in Italy are different from what is sold here in Canada? Ours are generally more than sweet enough, especially if they are the heirloom varieties that have more of the flavour of the wood strawberry to them.

bestwriter wrote on December 29, 2014, 7:47 PM

You could be right. I have never tasted strawberries without cream. Not much luck to get the best variety.

FernandoSHA wrote on December 29, 2014, 9:26 PM

Incidentally, strawberries only grow in the northern part of our country where they have a cold climate. I learned that strawberries easily spoil so that they have shorter shelf life if sold in the fruit market or even in the malls.

celticeagle wrote on December 29, 2014, 9:34 PM

Interesting. We all love strawberries. The ones I usually grow are "Laramies". They are very hardly and grow and grow all season.

tinamarie wrote on December 29, 2014, 10:50 PM

Strawberries are my favorite. I never knew the history...thanks.

Feisty56 wrote on December 29, 2014, 11:50 PM

I've never had much of a fondness for strawberries, although I'm not sure why. When I do eat, them, I prefer them whole and without any accompaniment. How interesting that it was a spy who made it possible to cross the two types of plants to create one splendid strawberry.

scheng1 wrote on December 30, 2014, 12:22 AM

Interesting to learn that strawberry is not a berry. It is very expensive here.

allen0187 wrote on December 30, 2014, 12:54 AM

Strawberries are a favorite of mine. i can go on and on for days eating these! Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history about strawberries. Now, every time, i eat these, I'll think about spies like James Bond and Johnny English. LOL!

JanetJenson wrote on December 30, 2014, 1:35 AM

I did not know that! What lovely illustrations, the one with vibrant color and the other so beautiful in its detail.

MegL wrote on December 30, 2014, 3:07 AM

Really interesting. It's surprising how what might seem like small details at the time can become very important in the future.

paigea wrote on December 30, 2014, 11:53 AM

I like strawberries and it's interesting to learn a little of their history.

seren3 wrote on January 1, 2015, 3:10 PM

How interesting! I love the wild strawberries I had when I was small. Intense flavor!

redcloaklife wrote on January 15, 2015, 5:37 AM

I knew strawberries were delicious, but I never knew they had such an interesting history. I just wish I could grow some on my back porch. All in due course, I suppose. LOL