Strawberries had been known in Europe for centuries before the large, modern strawberry was introduced – especially the type we still find today in forests and other wild vegetation – the wild strawberry. It is a delicious, diminutive fruit that was – and still is – cultivated, but has always kept its small size. It was, and is, an expensive little fruit, which perhaps accounts for its historic popularity, including at European courts.
We have a French spy to thank for the large, modern strawberry, the ‘sun kings’ of today. The military engineer Frézier mapped the Spanish operations in South America on behalf of the French king Louis XIV. Louis had ambitions to the Spanish throne and wanted to have the military power of the Spanish army explored. He issued another order too: a previously dispatched spy had recounted large, tasty strawberries that grew in Peru, and Louis wanted to have some of these. Frézier travelled as a merchant, which provided a good cover and an alibi for the interest he showed everything, including fruit. He found the strawberries and brought some plants back on his return journey.
Initial cultivation attempts failed, for the engineer had only brought female plants back with him. The plants needed male specimens in order to produce fruit (dioeciousness). This problem also applied to the native strawberry – it too required male plants in order to produce fruit. This was not known to many growers and the male strawberry plants were often removed as weeds, for they did not produce fruit… and the female plants soon failed. As a result, the harvests were small and uncertain. The growers tried all manner of things with the new strawberry plants from Peru, but they did not achieve results until they put these plants near the large wild strawberry.
Eventually another type of strawberry produced real results – Fragaria virginiana, a strawberry that had been imported from America since around 1600. This American strawberry and the Chilean strawberry spontaneously hybridised to form a new race. That was the strawberry that we still eat today – a coincidence, but a lucky one!
An additional benefit of this new strawberry was that it is monoecious. Male plants are not necessary to produce fruit and the harvests are richer than ever… Frézier may not have managed to put Louis XIV on the Spanish throne, but he did put the strawberry on our tables.