The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
When it comes to American symbols, the apple pie ranks pretty high on the list. This fruity pastry is embedded in the identity of Americans—right up there with the Statue of Liberty and baseball. But apples aren't native to North America, and pies themselves arrived with the colonists (and were more like Tupperware than pastries both in flavor and function). So what is more American than apple pie? As unlikely as it seems, strawberry bread may be a strong contender.
Wild strawberries were once plentiful in America. In fact the most common garden varieties, Fragaria virginiana and F. chiloensis, were cultivated from wild plants in the Americas. The first settlers at Jamestown in 1607 were inundated with the wild strawberries. As quickly as they cut down forests, strawberries would spring up in clearings. And they were sweet, adding a much welcome fresh fruit option to the relative stern pioneer fare.
In New England, the strawberry found plenty of fertile ground to take root. It was the custom of local native tribes in Massachusetts and the surrounding areas to burn areas of plants and forests to make space for corn, which coincidentally created fertile places for the wild strawberry plant to establish itself. And as settlers pushed west, the strawberry was there to greet them (and followed in their wake)—from Kentucky to the Mississippi valley to California to Alaska, the wild strawberry has had a claim.
The ready availability of the fruit meant that there was no garden culture around it, so there was never a need to nurture the plant as garden stock. The best varieties were sent back to England to for domestication, but in America the plant was largely ignored until the 18th-century. As towns grew during this period, so too did the cultivated areas around them, which in turn displaced the wild strawberry. Settlers would travel “into the wild” to collect fruit for preserves and jams; it was only when the trips became a genuine inconvenience that wild stock was brought back to personal gardens.
These was the exceptions, however, not the norm. As late as 1750, people were still looking to wild plants for strawberries, and in the larger cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, strawberries were a main trade for street vendors (like apples and oysters). As in the case of lawns, however, as wealth and time became more plentiful toward the latter part of the century, interest in the plants turned toward domestication.
This interest was encouraged by the efforts of William Robert Prince, who commercialized his botanical interests to create the first retail nursery experience in North America in 1737. The business, known as Prince Nursery, operated for 130 years out of Flushing, NY, and shaped the face of American horticulture. Their 1771 catalog included three varieties of strawberries: Large Hautboys, the Chili, and the Redwood, which sold at a shilling for a dozen roots. Despite the abundance of hardy wild stock, these varieties were actually imported. The varieties that had been selected and sent overseas for cultivation had not yet been established. Much of the American early horticultural history was based on the trade of plants.
Gardeners tried to grow these varieties using techniques common to their native England—and failed. As any seasoned gardener will tell you, plants can be very particular about their needs. As a domesticated plant, the strawberry was only successful beginning in the 1800s when nurseries turned their attention to F. virginiana and began to cultivate this local species.
This rise in popularity and the infiltration of private garden spaces should have propelled the strawberry into the forefront of American favor. But they fell short because they proved to be challenging. In the 1800s, politicians had taken to naming garden vegetables and fruits after themselves to demonstrate they they were good, solid, grounded people with local community ties; some notable examples include the the [Congressman] Hubbard squash, the [Senator] Doolittle raspberry, and the [Speaker of the House] Colfax strawberry. While this might seem like an initial good strategy, any good marketer will tell you this actually pretty risky as these would-be salt-of-the-earth politicians found out. To be effective, a symbol must have universal appeal, and berries can be fickle. A berry may do well in the nursery, and poorly when planted due to the soil or seasonal conditions or the skill of the gardener. Colfax strawberries, for example, blossoms profusely and bears many berries, but tastes terrible. People don’t want to eat them and have a negative association with them. They’re a truly poor namesake.
Granted, much of the same may be said for apples: they may thrive or die depending on their circumstances. But apples represented something else. As a foreign fruit, their proliferation echoed the settling of the continent. Johnny Appleseed is rooted in the lore and legend that settlers created to document their expansion. And the evolution of the pie in America into a fruity pastry tracks against our industrial development (as the French introduced Americans to butter and sugar became cheaper). Strawberries were here to be conquered. We uprooted the best varieties and sent them back to England to make them better. It is very likely they were served (possibly in bread form) at the early harvest feasts—not apple pies, but strawberry bread. The strawberry becomes an apt metaphor for colonialism on American soil. In this plant, we find a story of deprioritization and displacement of the indigenous in favor of an imported supremacy.
This is the first year that my strawberry plants are showing promise in my garden. The big difference seems to be that I've moved them into containers as opposed to growing them in-ground, and basically each plant is allocated to a container. The plants—there are two—have each produced numerous bright pink flowers, which to the the delight of my toddler are showing signs of becoming berries. Considering that we're almost in August, I doubt we'll actually see anything we can eat, but one can dream. And while it might not be as iconic as an apple pie, some strawberry jam on toast isn't a bad alternative.
Have something to say? How is your garden doing this year? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Fletcher, Stevenson Whitcomb (1917). The Strawberry in North America: History, Origin, Botany, and Breeding. Macmillan.
Warner, C. (1871). Strawberries and Politics. The Aldine, 4(8), 120-121. doi:10.2307/20636085
You might also like:
Also in the Green Thumbery series: