A box of strawberry plants have just arrived, the postman swaying against the gale, and looking more like a polar explorer than a postie. So, they’ll have to wait a while before they get in the ground. I’ll open the box and leave the younguns in the shed to wait and see if winter leaves us all alone next week or so. Cambridge Late Pine is a strawberry I’ve always wanted again, after having had it in my first kitchen garden thirty and more years ago – it’s got no shelf life, a short season, and is totally delicious. The other one, modern, sounds and looks as if it is backcrossed into either the wild woodland strawb. or into the musk strawberry with its dark purplish red fruit. It purports to have a long fruiting season and a delicious flavour. We’ll see.
But the old faithful is a bush, biggish, that is happily in flower even in this dire weather – Viburnum farreri. It’s been going for a while, the flowers sometimes getting blasted by serious cold, but as they grow in tight bunches of buds that slowly expand, there are new buds waiting to open well into spring. The intensity of colour varies between a few ‘named’ sorts, but is mostly a shade of pink. The clusters of flowers on the picturesque bare branches are a delight, and smell quite strongly of almonds, vanilla, a touch of honey. Even better, they last well in water, even throwing out sometimes if you keep them long enough. Almost anything will root if you let it… The biggest ‘cutting’ I’ve ever taken was about 2.5m. high, 3cm across. Now, that’s big. It was a thinning from the congested mass of poles that the shrub eventually becomes. I piled a whole series, cut ends to the ground, of them in a forgotten bit of garden. Most dried satisfactorily for the fire, but a couple rooted and began to grown. Instant height in the garden. Might be useful.
Here’s Reginald Farrer, writing of its discovery in ‘On the Eaves of the World’ of 1917: “Shallow scrub and coppice descended here to the track-side, and here we came on the Viburnum, at first isolated and suspicious, but soon in such quantity and such situations that one could no longer doubt that here this most glorious of flowering shrubs is genuinely indigenous. Its place of origin had long been in doubt, though all over North China it is probably the best-beloved and most universal of garden plants; so that there was real satisfaction in thus having traced it to its home, in the wild hills immediately to the south of Shi-hor (Xi he) and probably elsewhere in this narrow belt, though after this day we never set eyes on it again in nature’. Later he refers to its “gracious arching masses, ten feet high and more across, whose naked boughs in spring. before the foliage, become one blaze of soft pink lilac-spikelets, breathing an intense fragrance of heliotrope. The white form, indeed, is pure and lovely as the best of forced white lilac, but my own heart goes out yet more specially perhaps to the commoner pink type, whose blushing stars glisten as if built of crystals. after the pleasant fashion of so many spring flowers…’.
Oh, I thought you might like a bit of strawberry history – an extract from GLORIOUS HISTORIES (see Amazon for the e-book if you fancy more stories).
Modern garden strawberries: Fragaria x ananassas DUCHESNE
Origin: initial hybridization in Europe, of American species
Wild and alpine strawberries: F. vesca LINNAEUS
Musk strawberry: F. moschata DUCHESNE
Other species of Fragaria are sometimes found in the kitchen garden, including F. viridis DUCHESNE and F. virginiana DUCHESNE
The sorts of strawberry now most often grown are almost entirely hybrids of various American species, most of them introduced to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, the wildling has an ancient history, being cultivated in Roman gardens, if not earlier. Its fruit has always been thought delicious, and a number of superior sorts seem to have been selected early on. Long-season ones are mentioned by the fourteenth century (93 ), and sorts with fruit the size of a mulberry by the sixteenth century (41). Runnerless sorts were also available by that date. Gerard grew various colour variants, of which the white-fruited sort was said to have the most delicate flavour (68). The green one (F. viridis) was much grown in the seventeenth century, being one of the latest to mature, and also the sweetest (I07, 68).
The small-fruited sorts now generally referred to as ‘alpine’ have sometimes been thought of as a separate species (66, 105)
but are now regarded as part of F. vesca. They, too, were known in the sixteenth century but are supposed not to have been
cultivated until the middle of the eighteenth century (72, 103). Other variants are the rare and charming ‘Plymouth’ or ‘prickly’ strawberry found by John Tradescant the elder at Plymouth, the ‘fraise de Versailles’ or F. vesca var. monophylla, that has a single leaflet instead of the usual arrangement of three (and a very invasive garden plant) and a useful variegated form.
A central European species, F. moschata, was also once widely cultivated. The dark-coloured fruit have a remarkable musky perfume, and even though both male and female are needed to obtain fruit, they are remarkably vigorous, and it is hard to see why they have become such a rarity. It was introduced to this country in the sixteenth century, and Parkinson, growing it in the seventeenth century, called it the ‘Bohemian’ strawberry.
However delicious the European strawberries, they must always have been regarded as a nuisance to pick, though are still surprisingly cheap in Italian markets. The introduction of large-fruited American species was widely hailed as an advance, and they were quickly taken up by the cultivators. P. virginiana – abundant in Virginia, especially in new woodland clearings (72) – reached Europe by 1556 and was grown in Britain in the early seventeenth century. lt was grown by Parkinson and was much admired. Mortimer’s comment is that, ‘Some esteem that the best of all which hath not long since been brought from New England: It is the earliest ripe of all English Fruit, being ripe many Years in the first week of May.’ Later on, it was also the type most used for forcing (76). F. chiloensis, long cultivated by America’s first peoples (93) who also grew various colour types, was first grown in Spain (93) but spread to the rest of Europe by the early eighteenth century. Hybrids between the
two species (and referable to F. x ananassas, so called after their early name of ‘pine strawberry’) soon began to appear, and Miller was growing them by mid-century. Many of them were produced in France, and some of those created by Amedée Frezier at Versailles were extensively cultivated. However, the first major breeder was British (46). T. A. Knight produced hundreds of varieties in the early nineteenth century, amidst widespread interest. Perpetual-fruiting sorts, still not enough grown in modern gardens, were available by 1866.
Wild, alpine and Virginian strawberries were eaten fresh but dressed with sugar and red wine – claret and burgundy were thought to be best (77) – a way of eating which was popular well into the nineteenth century (if not especially effective). Eighteenth-century Frenchmen liked them dressed with orange juice, a practice still sometimes followed and certainly useful for some of the thinly flavoured modern varieties. Even some of the early hybrids were not perhaps too strong-tasting, for Cobbett, having recently discovered the alpine strawberry on the advice of Sir Charles Wolseley, wrote, ‘but a bed of these strawberries surpases all others in fragrance, and, I think, in flavour’ (19). A mixture of alpine sorts and F. ananassas ones tastes good too, but ignore statements that the birds do not eat alpines. They do, and you will lose a good proportion of your crop unless you grow them under the same netting as their lusher relatives.
Medicinally, strawberries have the wide range of uses that one might expect for such an old crop. A decoction of the plant, including the roots, was thought to stop menstrual flows, cure mouth ulcers and stop bad breath (26), was good for ‘Heart Qualms and Faintnesse’ (21) and is reported to have been used as yet another cure for gonorrhoea (97). The fruit, regarded as a general tonic, especially for invalids, was beneficial also because ‘taken even in large quantities they seldom disagree with the stomach. They promote perspiration, impart a violet scent to the urine, and dissolve the tartarous incrustations upon the teeth’ (66). They also helped people with gout or kidney stones if eaten in quantity, and must have offered a very pleasant cure, if of dubious efficacy.