These are not your ordinary grocery store strawberries.
They are nothing like those California berries, bred for size, long truck rides, and shelf-life, locked in plastic clamshells under the florescent lights of the produce section.
The berries of Washington are juicy, fragile, flavor-packed fruit. Because Northwest berries are mostly grown for processing, their texture and flavor are paramount, says Patrick Moore, WSU’s strawberry breeder.
And what grows best here are typically berries bred for this environment. Hood, an Oregon variety, is one of the most widely-grown in the region. It has large, dark red fruit and a clean, sweet taste. And like the rich, deep red Shuksan, an older WSU-released variety, it’s ripe and ready for a few short weeks each summer. If you can’t find either of those, there’s also the Rainier, the Puget Summer, and the Tillamook. Because these berries are so perishable, the best way to find them is in a farmers’ market or at a farmstand, picked the morning you buy them.
How they came to be in Northwest fields is a story as colorful as the berries themselves. The grandparents of the modern-day strawberries are native to the Americas, but they took a tour through Europe before coming home to live in American farms and gardens.
In ancient texts there are just a few references to the strawberry. By the 1300s, the fruit was cultivated in Europe and listed among the produce in the gardens at the Louvre. Still, it was a novelty, a treat for kings, according to horticulturalist George M. Darrow, author of The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology.
The European berry was nothing like the strawberry of today, notes Darrow, who worked with small fruits for the USDA from 1911 through 1957. It was a tiny fruit, the size of a fingernail, but still sweet and delicious. In the 1500s it had become a common garden plant. Still, for most people it was more of a treat than a dietary mainstay. It took the discovery of the New World and the return of explorers bearing the much larger American berries to give the modern strawberry its start. In 1714 French explorer and spy Amédée François Frézier went on a mission to Chile to size up the Spanish-ruled ports and determine the best approaches of attack for France. While there, he found a berry that bore fruits as large as a whole walnut. He returned to France with five plants of the Fragaria chiloensis. They were crossed with another American emigrant, Fragaria virginiana, according to Darrow. And years later, after much back-crossing and hybridizing, the strawberry was carried back across the Atlantic.
The 1800s saw the first commercial strawberry production in the United States. Since strawberries are not a major crop, the industry was small and slow to start, says Darrow. They reached the Northwest in the 1830s, in the days of Fort Vancouver.
No Northwest strawberry story would be complete without mention of the thousands of Japanese farmers who grew them. The Japanese-born farmers were able to adapt the intensive cropping practices from Japan. Among them was the Sakuma family who settled in Washington in 1915. They trucked and ferried their produce into Seattle from their main farm on Bainbridge Island. In the 1930s four of the Sakuma brothers moved up Skagit Valley to grow strawberries, a crop that could be grown on small plots of land and at the same time be very profitable.
The Sakumas were forced to stop farming during World War II. The Skagit branch of the family was sent to an internment camp at Tule Lake, California. When they were released years later, they returned to Skagit Valley and berry farming. Today the Sakumas’ children and grandchildren, including Steve Sakuma ’69, and Bryan ’78, run one of the largest berry farms in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the varieties they grow are from public breeding programs like the one at WSU.
Washington’s first varieties came from the WSU Puyallup research and extension center in the late 1920s. Chester Schwartze was hired as WSU’s first official strawberry breeder in 1932. He bred Northwest, which for a time in the 1960s was the most-widely planted strawberry in the country.
In 1956, he released Puget Beauty, a sweet, aromatic fruit, according to Moore, and parent to many of today’s Northwest cultivars. Over the years, WSU has released a number of other delicious and desirable berries. About 22 percent all the strawberries grown in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia come directly from WSU, and another 43 percent have a Northwest parent. And Moore is on the verge of releasing a new variety. “It’s big,” he says. “The first fruit were about 50 grams. We’re looking at eight to 10 per pound.”
“Also, it has excellent, excellent flavor,” says Moore, dispelling the notion that only the smaller berries are tasty. A few years ago he invited some Seattle chefs to sample some. “I wanted to educate them there are differences between strawberries. I also wanted to learn what traits they were looking for,” he says. The two they favored were Hood, the standard, and this new one.
Moore says his berry has a full, balanced flavor: “It’s not a real sweet one, but not real tart.” It’s probably best as an eating berry, he says. Because it ripens later than many others, by the time it’s ready, the processors have done most of their strawberry work and are ready to move on to other fruit.
Kirk Klicker, whose family has been growing strawberries in Walla Walla since the early 1900s, sampled some of Moore’s new berry in his fields last summer. “It’s incredibly addictive,” he says. Hood, by contrast, is a good berry, but it’s like fudge. You have some and you’re satisfied, he says. But these new strawberries, “when people eat them, they devour them. Then they want more.”
Eat them now, freeze them now, or make jam out of them. The Northwest strawberries are the best for all three uses, says Moore. And if you find them, don’t hesitate. “It’s about a two to four week season, depending on which variety and when you’re looking,” he says.
If you miss the June flush—don’t despair. Washington still has some “everbearing” varieties that will produce strawberries throughout the summer.
Strawberries – A gallery of photographs by Ingrid Barrentine