Gardening: Reacquainted with strawberries

By Justin Newcombe

You may think you know them intimately but, as Justin Newcombe discovered, strawberries have some strange secrets.

The strawberry isn't actually a berry. Photo / Supplied
The strawberry isn't actually a berry. Photo / Supplied

Strawberries are, strictly speaking, not berries - which leaves me feeling perplexed. They're actually the overburdened sexual organs of the strawberry flower - in fact, not its own special flower but part of the rosacea or rose family.

Confused? Well, there's more. The little seed on the outside of the strawberry (which is not a berry) are not seeds. No, they are little dried fruit known as achenes. Finding out all this is like being heartbroken by an old girlfriend. "I feel like we've grown apart, it's like I don't know you anymore". The rather distracted reply to this being that old line, "it's not you, it's me".

The strawberry has a long history, dating back to pre-Roman times but was thought largely inedible until cultivars were discovered in the new world. The modern strawberry was developed in Brittany, France in 1740 although the ground work had been done 45 years earlier by Jean de la Quintinie, the royal gardener at the Palace of Versailles under King Louis XIV. This work led to the hybridisation of two varieties, a small aromatic, flavoursome berry from Virginia that arrived in France around 1500 and a large, juicy berry from Chile that arrived 200 years later, courtesy of a French spy.

Horticulturalists at first struggled to propagate the larger Chilean berry because, unbeknown to them, the Chilean plants were all female. The Chilean plants then happened to be placed next to their Virginian cousins and bingo - the modern strawberry was born.

This culinary hit was named the pineapple strawberry (which, I imagine, was quite a racy name for 1740) and declared absolutely edible. Not only was it a success in the kitchen but the strawberry also proved very popular with gardeners primarily because of its ease of propagation in a variety of conditions and climates, tolerating rough coastal conditions as well as the cold. The name "strawberry" comes from the technique of surrounding the plants with straw. The most desirable properties of the straw are as a mulch, suppressing weeds and providing a bed for the young berries to ripen on.

Strawberries prefer a weed-free environment. In commercial gardens straw is not viable - plastic is used instead - but straw is very effective for the home gardener, especially when underpinned with newspaper.

The plants themselves prefer a free-draining, rich soil, so planting on mounds or in pots is desirable. Prepare the soil with compost and dress with potash. The most important thing is not to cover the crown.

The plants themselves will do well in dry conditions, but to get top-drawer fruit, it is important to water the plants from flower set to fruit picking. The strawberry sends out suckers which can be removed and potted on for the following year but take these only from the healthiest plants. The first one or two suckers will be vigorous and are viable, however later ones aren't worth the effort.

Strawberry plants will survive up to five years but it is the first crop which will give you the big berries ... Or fruit ... Or whatever they really are.

- NZ Herald

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