What’s red and white and red and white, besides the Canadian
flag? How about strawberry shortcake, strawberries and vanilla ice cream, or a
lovely strawberry sabayon?
Despite this cool wet June that hasn’t exactly been
strawberry or human weather, early local strawberries are all on board, waiting
for you to pick up a basket or three in time for a snazzy red and white dessert
for Canada Day.
Thank goodness commercial hybrids have finally gone back to
flavour. Remember a few years back when we were all marching back to the stores
to return our baskets of crabapple-sized strawberries that were watery,
tasteless, and half-destroyed with brown rot? Hooray for growers moving on to
better and better-tasting producers, though nothing can match the wild fruit.
I remember eating wild strawberries plucked straight from
the fields of west-central Alberta when I was a kid, thinking, yep, if I was a
bear, I’d sure be gobbling these up, as I nervously looked over my shoulder to
watch for competition. Though they were ever so tiny, their taste was so sweet
and powerful they were 10 times more satisfying than their commercial cousins.
Besides the much smaller, tastier berries, the wild
strawberry plant has no runners like its cultivated cousins — and here I say
“cultivated” not “commercial” for some valiant gardeners still defy the many
pests and fungi that can attack strawberry plants and plant a few in their gardens
Without runners, the stems holding the berries on the wild
plants do look like straw piled higgledy-piggledy, which some believe is the
provenance of the name ”strawberry.” Others think, as I did when I was a kid
and saw my grandfather mulch the plants with straw, that that’s where the name
came from. But that practice is fairly recent and could not have influenced the
origins of the name.
Still others suggest the “straw” in “strawberry” is from an
old Anglo-Saxon verb “strea” meaning “strew”, referring to the look of the wild
berries as being strewn about, or the way the achenes (pronounced ay-keens,
accent on the second syllable) — the tiny dark flecks most of us call seeds —
look scattered over the surface of the berry.
Not to confuse you, but by scientific definition those
achenes are the actual fruit: a small, dry, indehiscent one-seeded fruit with a
thin wall, to be exact, as in the achene of the sunflower, for a more familiar
example. In fact, strawberries, as well as blackberries and raspberries, are
really not berries at all; rather they are brambles. (Tomatoes are actually
berries, as are lemons — but let’s not make everyone too crazy and leave that
for a later column.) As for the strawberry, botanically speaking, it is a
greatly enlarged stem end or receptacle in which are embedded the many smaller
fruits, or achenes.