Strawberries, the fragrant, heart-shaped fruit decorated with hundreds of tiny yellow seeds and a neat green cap, have been cultivated for thousands of years, but in the Middle Ages, they were actually revered for their medicinal properties more than the culinary. It wasn’t until the early eighteenth century in France that natural crossbreeding between the North and South American varieties introduced the world to the large, juicy and deliciously sweet berry we adore today. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the fragile, highly-perishable strawberry was a delicacy for the rich. The development of modern transportation allowed strawberries to be mass-distributed, becoming the world’s favorite berry.
West Michigan is home to several varieties of strawberries. Annapolis, earliglow and honeoye ripen early June. Glooscap, Kent and Redchief are harvested in late June or early July. Allstar, bounty and jewel round the season out in July.
While available year-round in stores, strawberries are at their peak between May and July. One month after the plant’s white flowers bloom, the berries will begin to ripen, going from small green berries to larger white berries and finally ripened red berries. The three distinct types of plants have their own individual harvest season. June bearing plants, which produce the largest berries, are ready late spring with a short, three-week harvest. Everbearing plants have three periods of fruit production, in spring, summer and fall. Day neutral plants grow throughout the entire season. Plants generally yield a larger crop of bigger berries in its second or third year.
Strawberries can be found in every county in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, though West Michigan’s Berrien, Van Buren and Leelanau counties produce the majority of berries.
The best strawberry crops are grown in well-drained, nutrient-rich soil, but can also grow in sandy soils.
Once picked, strawberries cease ripening, so chose deep red berries free of green or yellow patches, which may carry a sour flavor. Small to medium sized berries are often more flavorful compared to the giant counterparts. They are an extremely delicate fruit, so it is advised to pick them by snapping the stalk and not pulling from the berry. Collect berries into a shallow container to avoid bruising. Berries should be used within a few days of picking.
Berries are delicate and should be handled thusly. Before storing, remove any damage strawberries to prevent contamination to the other berries.
Fresh: They should be stored unwashed and unhulled in a shallow container or spread on a dish and covered with paper towel and plastic wrap. Strawberries will remain fresh for up to three days and should not be washed in cool water until just before their use. Removing caps before washing will increase water absorption and diminish the flavor.Frozen: gently wash berries and pat them dry. Lemon juice will help maintain their bright red color. Arrange the berries in a single layer and place in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag. They will keep for one year.
Strawberries contain an array of beneficial phytonutrients, including flavonoids, anthocyanidins and ellagic acid. They are an wonderful source of vitamin C, manganese, dietary fiber, iodine, potassium, folate, riboflavin, vitamin B5, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B6, vitamin K, magnesium, and copper. Studies show that those who regularly eat strawberries are three times less likely to develop cancer compared to those who do not eat strawberries.
Did You Know?
- Strawberries are the most popular berry in the world.
- There are over 20 named species and 600 varieties of strawberries that differ in flavor, size and texture.
- The United States is the largest strawberry producer in the world, followed by Spain.
- The strawberry was considered poisonous in Argentina until the mid-1800's.
- The sale of strawberries nets Michigan farmers millions of dollars annually.
- In fourteenth-century France, Charles V ordered twelve hundred strawberry plants to be grown in the Royal Gardens of the Louvre.
- On the average, there are 200 tiny seeds in every strawberry.
- Native Americans pounded “heart-seed berries" into their corn-meal bread, a precursor to today’s strawberry shortcake.