Did you know the strawberry is the first fruit to ripen in spring? Or that it is a member of the rose family and the plant has a sweet fragrance? Or that Americans eat almost five pounds each of strawberries per year?
The strawberry is an incredible fruit — from its history, to its sweet and savory flavor, to its health benefits, to its growing popularity among Americans of all ages.
Why write a column on strawberries in September? Well, you can still buy them in the supermarket — both fresh (even though they come from California or Mexico) and frozen, as well as jams and pie fillings. And you can get fresh ones dipped in chocolate at restaurants and at delis.
And recently, I attended the premier screening of University of Arkansas Journalism Professor Larry Foley’s new documentary film, “The Favored Strawberry,” at the Fort Smith Library. Larry is a Fort Smith native and his late father, Don, worked at a strawberry processing plant in Van Buren when he was a teenager in the 1950s. And closer to home, stepson Kenneth’s first job as a young teen was picking strawberries in the river bottoms of Crawford County.
As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had a large strawberry patch and nothing was sweeter than visiting that patch and picking the biggest and ripest and savoring the flavor of those Arkansas strawberries. And although I can’t remember who picked all those berries, I remember riding in the truck with Papa to Mansfield to load the crates on trains heading east and west.
My final justification — horticulturally speaking — is to remind gardeners who grow strawberries that September is the time when plants are setting flower buds and need fertilizer and moisture to ensure a good harvest next spring.
Not only are strawberries delicious, they are fascinating in many ways:
• Eight strawberries will provide 140 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C for kids.
• Ancient Romans believed strawberries had medicinal powers.
• American Indians were among the earliest people to eat strawberries — long before the English settlers arrived. They were eaten fresh or baked in cornbread.
• One cup of strawberries is only 55 calories.
• On average, there are 200 seeds in a strawberry.
• Americans eat 3.4 pounds of fresh strawberries and another 1.8 pounds of frozen each year.
• Eating strawberries can whiten your teeth.
• Shoppers with strawberries in their carts tend to spend more money in the store.
• The strawberry is the most widely cultivated small fruit in American gardens today.
• And strawberries are a member of the Rosaceae family that includes roses and hawthorns and other edible fruits including apples, pears, peaches and raspberries, according to Wikipedia.
Strawberries grow in every state of the U.S. In the early 20th Century, Arkansas was a leading strawberry producer. By 1926, growers located primarily in four Arkansas counties — Crawford, White, Benton and Washington — had 15,000 acres of the berries. The Alma area was a major producer. In fact, a panoramic photo of the first strawberry festival held in downtown Van Buren hangs in the offices of the Press Argus-Courier. It is dated May 6, 1926.
In those early days, the railroad was responsible for the incredible growth of Arkansas’ strawberry industry, but shipping of berries via refrigerated truck led to its decline. After World War II, California and Florida began the massive push in production that continues today.
Although Arkansas’ strawberry production is down from its glory days, there is still quite of bit of land devoted to strawberries in the Arkansas River valley, northwest Arkansas and across the border in Oklahoma at Stilwell, where the Strawberry Festival has been held every year since 1948. A year later, the governor of Oklahoma proclaimed Stilwell “The Strawberry Capital of the World.”
Ninety percent of the strawberries grown in Arkansas are sold in local markets or are grown and harvested by home gardeners.
The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service recommends the following varieties — including everbearing, June bearers and day neutrals — for Arkansas: Cardinal, Camarosa, Chandler, Delmarvel, Earliglow, Lateglow, Noreaster, Sweet Charlie, Tribute and Tristar.
Jim and Cathie Greene (whom I have known since my pre-retirement days at Sparks) have been growing strawberries for 19 years at their Wild Things Farm. “It was our first crop, and we knew nothing. I have found them to be somewhat temperamental. So many things can go wrong, not to mention it is a favorite of deer,” Cathie recalled.
Since Wild Things Farm grows four acres of strawberries, Cathie seemed a natural for sharing her knowledge and experience. “We treat our plants as annuals (and plant each fall). Strawberries are susceptible to disease and fare better when fields are rotated. They produce more when replanted,” she said — plus there is no need to weed or water throughout the summer.
Although she plants two or three varieties each year, Chandler is a favorite and is therefore the bulk of her planting. The others are usually “newer varieties that I want to try.”
Chandler — a June bearer — is her all-time favorite. Her reasons are:
• “It can handle our winters without protection. Three years ago when we had sustained lows of 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit for several days, it was unscathed.
• “Berry size is good. The berries are large for about two weeks, then a more moderate size.
• “Flavor is excellent. A true strawberry flavor with good sweetness and juiciness.
• “Perfect for fresh market.”
Disadvantages are no shelf life and the berry will need to be refrigerated or frozen the same day harvested.
Her advice to anyone interested in growing strawberries is, “Start with a small plot. We jumped in at 5 acres, and it was a mistake. There was too much we didn't know. Remember, the first year you plant a crop in new soil, it is more forgiving. Strawberries do not like heat and rain when blooming.”
Wild Things Farm, 700 Beaty in Pocola, is the recipient of the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association’s RedBud Award for Outstanding Agritourism Attraction. In addition to strawberries and other u-pick-it patches, the farm offers a variety of unique activities including a petting zoo, hayrides and a corn maze.
Detailed information on starting a strawberry patch is available at your County Extension Office, and bare-root plants should arrive in January or February at the Farmers Coop and garden centers. Popular choices in this region include Cardinal (developed by UofA many years ago and a favorite of many home gardeners), Chandler, Blakemore, Surecrop, Ozark Beauty and Seascape.
In “The Favored Strawberry,” a scene depicts a woman at the Fayetteville Farmers Market eating a strawberry and commenting, “Now that’s how a strawberry should taste.” As a consumer and not a grower, this caught my attention, because I had begun to believe old age had dulled my taste buds. Then I learned that the strawberries you pick in the Arkansas fields are not the same varieties that you buy in the supermarket. A copy of “The Favored Strawberry” is available at the library.
An Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Dr. Foley also shared a bit of information about his next project — already underway. The topic is Arkansas’ best fruit pies and will include two Fort Smith restaurants famous for their pies.
“There’s an old saying — ‘Doubtless, God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.’ Wherever they’re grown, the best way to eat a strawberry is picked fresh from the vine,” he concluded.
So come June, when the first berries turn red, join me at Wild Things Farm or one of the other u-pick-it patches or farmers’ markets, so we can let our taste buds judge whether today’s strawberry flavor matches that of our childhood memories.
Next week, the topic will be: surprises and disappointments in the garden this summer.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to email@example.com.