In May 1770, the woods between Austria and France were dotted with the tiny red berries and delicate trefoil leaves of fraises des bois (Fragaria vesca), or “strawberries of the forest.” Their candy-sweet perfume, unmatched by the court perfumer at Versailles, might’ve been the first scent 14-year-old Marie Antoinette associated with her life as the Dauphine of France.
“It’s a very specific aroma,” says Philippe Chartier, a modern-day strawberry breeder for the Centre Interrégional de Recherche et d’Expérimentation de la Fraise (CIREF). “The aroma is very sweet, and kind of … woody. Maybe musky, yes, a little.”
Sweet, gentle fragrances were revered at the French court, especially those that were hard to obtain, possibly because the palace at Versailles smelled so vile. “The park, the gardens, even the château, turn the stomach with their dreadful odors,” complained Marie Antoinette’s perfumer. Unfortunately, fraises des bois were smaller than a thimble, almost too tender to transport, and painstaking to collect in any great quantity, even for a king.
A legend holds that in A.D. 916, King Charles III was so delighted by the gift of a few pints of wild strawberries that he knighted the donor, Julius de Berry, and gave him a coat of arms bearing the five-petal strawberry blossom to signify righteousness and purity of intention. Berry was in turn so delighted by the knighthood that he adopted the surname “Frézier,” meaning “strawberry.” There are some holes in this legend, however: The French word fraise appears not to have been used to refer to strawberries alone until the 14th century, about 400 years after the legendary knighting. The coat of arms also poses problems: In France, as in the rest of medieval Europe, heraldry was formalized in the 12th century — and “canting,” or visual punning based on a person’s name or qualities, was rampant. The strawberry flowers on the arms of the Frézier family may have been a much later addition than the legend suggests.
Nearly 850 years after Julius de Berry received his knighthood, the first hybrid strawberries were emerging in France. In the late 18th century, during the time of Marie Antoinette, the pleasures of big, plentiful, modern strawberries were still remarkably new. Pastel pastries laden with strawberry hearts, baby-pink macarons, and red-jelly tarts were culinary inventions made possible by hybridized strawberries. But the luxurious berries decorating the young princess’s petits fours weren’t the sour jumbo fruits sold in plastic clamshells in American supermarkets today. Instead, they were delicate blends of flavors drawn from the wild strawberries native to France and the imports from Eastern Europe and the Americas. Modern French cultivars still share many of the aromatic and flavor notes of these early hybrids. “They’re better than from some other countries,” Chartier says, “because there is more aroma, and the taste — its sugar and acid — is more balanced.” Before these hybrids were developed, however, gardeners had been racking their brains and gardens for ways to produce larger, more consistent strawberries.
Strawberry Cultivation Frustration
By the 1300s, gardeners understood that strawberries self-cloned by producing runners, so they began transplanting wild strawberries to their gardens. Strawberries were common adornments in monasteries, where monks associated the pretty trifoliate leaves with the Holy Trinity. In 1368, King Charles V of France had his gardener collect 1,200 runners for the royal garden in Paris. But after just a few years, nearly half the verdant green plot would stop producing, requiring the gardener to head out into the woods again. Gardeners wouldn’t understand why some plants stopped producing, or never produced, for another 400 years.
In the interim, gardeners tried to domesticate strawberries. By 1532, they had selected a white variety of F. vesca in addition to the wild fire-engine red. They had noticed that some plants bore strawberries through the entire warm season, rather than for a few short weeks in early June. These long-season strawberries were dubbed “everbearing.” Gardeners also worked diligently toward bigger berries, and Paris’ famous Montreuil gardeners selected their way to an eponymous cultivar said to be 15 or even 20 times larger than the wild F. vesca — still a disappointingly small fruit.
New Cultivars From Across the World
Rumors of strawberries as big as peaches induced gardeners to try the new, exotic species arriving from Eastern Europe and the Americas. First to arrive, from central Europe and east into Russia, was the intensely aromatic ‘Capron’ (F. moschata), which is a dark mauve-purple and smells of muscadine grapes. They were popular in chilly, overcast England because of their cold-hardiness and proclivity for shade, but the French were averse to the plant’s aesthetics.
“I want even the ‘Capron’ plants torn out or at least that no particular friendliness be held toward them,” wrote the king’s head gardener in the early 1700s, complaining of their hairy, almost prickly leaves and thick, squat runners.
“It has been known for a long time in the gardens around Paris, but it is scorned there,” wrote Antoine Nicolas Duchesne, who planted ‘Capron’ strawberries in the king’s garden anyway.
Duchesne was practically raised in the botanical garden of the Petit Trianon. His doting father was superintendent of the royal buildings and close friends with the head gardener, who took a liking to the boy. In 1759, Louis XV had ordered all known plants in Europe be brought to his private collection, just a 1-1⁄2-mile walk from the Palace of Versailles. As a result, when strawberries caught the teenaged Duchesne’s curiosity in 1761, he was privy to every known Fragaria species and had the ear of the chief head gardener of the botanical world.
The First Modern Strawberry Hybrid
On July 6, 1764, 17-year-old Duchesne presented Louis XV with the biggest strawberries the king had ever seen. Duchesne had made an unlikely hybrid of the scorned F. moschata with a strawberry from South America, F. chiloensis. The king authorized Duchesne to expand the strawberry collection at the Trianon, as well as demanding the new hybrid strawberries be added to his personal kitchen gardens, destining Duchesne’s experiments for the royal table.
Duchesne found himself in correspondence with prominent botanists from all over Europe, from Carolus Linnaeus in Sweden to Amédée-François Frézier — the man who’d brought F. chiloensis to France, and a descendant of the same Julius de Berry who’d reportedly been knighted for his gift of strawberries in 916. Frézier was by then an old man full of stories from his days as a spy in Chile for the previous King Louis. It was during his time in Chile that he’d spotted the natives growing a truly giant strawberry.
“There they plant whole fields with a species of strawberry differing from ours in that the leaves are rounder, thicker, and more downy. The fruit is generally as big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s egg, of a whitish red,” he wrote.
Frézier carefully transported five plants to his home in Brest, France, in 1714. He gave just one to the royal gardener, who propagated it and sent the offspring to botanists all over Europe. Outside of mild, coastal Brest, however, the “Chili strawberry” struggled, and it rarely fruited, despite abundant blossoms with petals larger than entire F. vesca flowers.
Duchesne’s hybrid led to a key discovery: Some strawberry species have separate male and female plants. This explained medieval gardeners’ troubles with unproductive plots: Thinning the nonfruiting male plants — or collecting only fruiting females — deprived the female plants of the pollination necessary for setting fruit. Inevitably, the plots would decrease in productivity until they forced the hapless gardeners to return to the woods to gather fresh plants. All the plants Frézier had brought home were female, and so were their offspring, created through vegetative propagation rather than by harvesting and growing out seeds. By introducing female F. chiloensis plants to a virile male F. moschata, Duchesne was able to coax them into hybridizing.
When news of Duchesne’s discovery hit the presses, botanists began sending him samples of other unusual strawberries they’d found. He was surprised to find that F. chiloensis had already been hybridizing with other species all over Europe, but especially with the American F. virginiana, which snuck in unnoticed around the same time as F. chiloensis. In all, Duchesne identified five strawberries he thought were hybrids, with the size of F. chiloensis and a sweet, slightly acidic aroma he likened to a pineapple. Duchesne named these hybrids Fragaria x ananassa in his 1770 book documenting available European strawberry types — likely the same cultivars that garnished Marie Antoinette’s petits vols-au-vent and colored the whipped cream of pâte d’amandes à la coupe on her wedding night.
But appreciation for strawberry variation was lost on the princess. In 1774, Louis XV died, passing the crown to Marie Antoinette’s husband. The 19-year-old queen immediately hired an architect to transform the botanical gardens into an English pleasure garden. Duchesne’s strawberry oddities were sent to gardens in Paris, and the rest were destroyed.
Strawberry breeding came to a standstill in France during the chaos of the French Revolution. Duchesne himself barely evaded a beheading, slipping away to become a schoolteacher and die in poverty. While English and American breeders pumped out new, bigger hybrids with longer shelf lives and shiny red exteriors, the French held onto their older cultivars and a fondness for F. vesca, the little woodland berry with an amazing aroma.
Popular modern French cultivars of Fragaria x ananassa, such as ‘Mara des Bois’ and ‘Gariguette,’ contain a volatile compound not found in American berries: methyl anthranilate, which gives French strawberries their signature musky-sweet bouquet. French strawberries tend to have a very short shelf life, but Chartier and the strawberry breeders at CIREF have been working to fix that by releasing new, improved versions of old favorites. Chartier’s favorite is ‘Charlotte,’ an everbearing cultivar he released in 2004.
‘Charlotte’ is really the kind of strawberry you can just eat like a sweet,” says Chartier. “You don’t need any sugar or cream with that.”
You can grow strawberries from seed, but you’ll get fruit a year or two sooner if you buy bare-root plants.
Set plants about 18 inches apart in a sunny, fertile bed free of perennial weeds. Place the crowns right at the soil’s surface, and mulch thoroughly to retain moisture and discourage weeds. Use row covers to protect new plantings from frost; after they’re established, strawberries don’t need winter protection.
After harvest, you can thin unproductive plants and trim away about half the runners on vigorous plants.
Harvest berries in the morning with a stub of stem attached, and refrigerate them immediately.
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
• Red and white cultivars of F. vesca
• Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.
• F. vesca ‘Charlotte’
• F. vesca ‘Mara des Bois’
• Prairie Moon Nursery
• F. virginiana
• F. x ananassa
• F. moschata
• Woodbrook Native Plant Nursery
• F. chiloensis
• F. vesca
• F. virginiana
Bio: Lindsay Gasik is a self-described fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her blog, Year of the Durian.