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Straying Strawberry

By Audrey Stallsmith


Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did. --William Butler

"Rare and ripe strawberries," London street criers chanted. "And haut boys sixpence a pottle, full to the bottom haut boys. Strawberries and cream are charming and sweet. Mix them and try how delightful they eat!" A pottle was a small fruitbasket and hautboys were a type of strawberry, so called either because they came from the "high woods" or grew on a "long stalk."

Strawberry derived its name from streowan ("to stray"), probably a reference to its habit of casting runners to wander from its original position. Non-resident clergymen were often called strawberry preachers, because they strayed from their flocks for most of the year.

The Latin title fragaria comes from "fragrans"-in reference to the berries' fruity scent. Perhaps the switch to the current name originated with farmers carting those berries to market on beds of straw.

Sales techniques do not seem to have changed much over the years, however. Francis Bacon complained of "the strawberry wives, that laid two or three great strawberries at the mouth of their pot, and all the rest were little ones."

Although strawberries are supposed to stand for the "fruits of righteousness," they are not technically berries at all but simply "the enlarged ends of the plant's stamen." The little black spots are the real fruits.

Not all of the blossoms produce. One of the characters in War and Peace is described as "a barren flower. . .like what one finds among the strawberry flowers."

I grew a few wild European strawberries (fragaria vesca) in my garden for several years. (The native American kind is fragaria virginiana.) Although the fruits were quite small, they were, in my opinion, superior in taste to commercial strawberries. The wild ones also do well in partial shade, whereas the tame giants need more sun.

In fact, many historical references to strawberries imply that they were often gathered in the forest. Tusser describes them as "growing abroade among thornes in the wood." And, in what was perhaps the original "babes-in-the-wood" folktale, two abandoned toddlers died there, and a kind bird covered them with strawberry leaves. "The Robin so red/ Fresh strawberry-leaves did over them spread."

The esteem in which this member of the rose family was held is proved by the fact that a duke's coronet was decorated with strawberry leaves. For lesser noblemen, those leaves were interspersed with pearls! So, when the duchess in Dorian Gray complains that she is "tired of strawberry leaves," we can assume that she is fed up with her exalted position.

Besides being "excellent good," strawberries are easily digested and nutritious. Six medium ones will provide a hundred percent of your RDA of Vitamin C. They are also high in boron which naturally raises blood levels of estrogen, so James Duke recommends them for postmenopausal women.

Culpeper prescribed strawberries "to cool the liver, the blood, and the spleen, or an hot choleric stomach; to refresh and comfort the fainting spirits, and quench thirst." They are cleansing too, and have been used to whiten teeth and skin or to soothe sunburn. Perhaps due to their high Vitamin C content they also help, as Culpeper describes it, "to fasten loose teeth and to heal spungy foul gums."

The leaves of wild strawberry make a good tea which, according to Jethro Kloss, "tones up the appetite and the entire system generally." They are often mixed with sweet woodruff, either in tea or May wine. Duke also praises those leaves for their rich content of vitamins, minerals, and ellagic acid-which is supposed to help prevent cancer.

But we love strawberries best, of course, for their sweet selves and can't get enough of them in shortcakes, pies, jams, and other delicacies. After all, the nursery-rhyme "good life" was to "sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam and dine upon strawberries, sugar, and cream!"

Fragaria image is from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden