The strawberry (Fragaria), like many fruits including apples, pears, raspberries, and cherries are members of the rose family. Though wild strawberries are small and bland compared to the cultivated strawberries of current times, archaeologists have found strawberry seeds at Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Iron Age sites indicating that early man ate strawberries.1 However, strawberries have gone though periods of acceptance and contempt and are not reported to have been cultivated until the 14th century.
It is unclear where the name "strawberry" came from, but it is commonly believed that the name resulted from the the habit of growing cultivated berries on a bed of straw. When the berries were harvested they were often strung on a straw blade and sold that way as a “straw of berries.” The American Indians called strawberries "wuttahimneash" which means heart-seed berry. The scientific name Fragaria and the common name, fraise in many languages, refers to the sweet fragrance of the berries.
Early Roman writers including Pliny and Ovid mention strawberries, but there is no mention of cultivation. The strawberry's low growing habit spurred the Roman writer Virgil to warn children to look out for serpents lurking in the grass when picking the wild fruit. This association with snakes and other dangerous creatures continued into the 12th century when Saint Hildegard of Germany declared the strawberry unfit for human consumption because it grew on the ground where snakes and toads could slither and crawl upon the fruits.
Strawberries finally overcame their bad reputation around the 14th century when the first reports of cultivation are recorded. The first major attempts at cultivation are recorded in France in 1368 when King Charles V planted 1200 strawberry plants in the gardens of the Louvre and a few years later when the Duke and Duchess if Burgundy planted thousands of plants at their Dijon estate.
When Europeans came to America they found that the Indians had cultivated a wild strawberry that was superior in size and flavor to the European variety. However, the hybrid strawberry that we know today was not developed until the 18th century when the American and Chilean varieties were crossed to make Fragaria x ananassa, the precursor of all cultivated strawberries grown today.
In America, strawberries are grown across the country, but they have been widely cultivated in California since the beginning of the 20th century. These days there are over 25,000 acres of strawberries grown commercially in California, which adds up to a billion pounds of strawberries a year or about 80% of the strawberries sold in the U.S.
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- Vegetarians in Paradise: Taming the Wild Strawberry
University of Illinois: Strawberries and More: History and Lore