The Domestication of the Strawberry

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Most of the strawberries grown today derive from two American species which were brought together and hybridized less than 300 years ago—and in Europe, not in the Americas!

Europe had its own native strawberry (F. vesca and F. moschata), which is now called the “wild” strawberry or fraise de bois (“woodland strawberry”), even though it’s cultivated. This strawberry was mentioned in Roman literature, subsequently cultivated, and by the 15th century had a wonderful fragrance but was still small, pithy and unproductive. Early European visitors to North America were impressed by the size and vigor of an American species, F. virginiana, and brought it back to Europe. Then a Frenchman by the stunningly appropriate name of Frézier found the walnutsized fruits of another New World species, F. chiloensis, growing in Chile, and took that species to France in 1712. Around 1750, in the strawberry-producing area around Plougastel in Britanny, an accidental hybrid between the two American species arose. Then across the Channel in England, a natural mutant of the Chilean species arose, large and pink, with a shape and aroma reminiscent of pineapple. Modern strawberry varieties, large and red and flavorful, derive from these two all-American ancestors. They have been given the scientific name F. x ananassa to indicate their hybrid origins (x) and distinctive pineapple aroma (ananassa).