Hybrid Strawberry History

The history of modern strawberries traces a path from Chile and Eastern Europe to France under the shadow of revolution.

  • Modern strawberries are bigger
    Modern strawberries are bigger and store better than their wild European ancestors, but they tend to have a less complex flavor and scent. See the article for suppliers of antique strawberries to grow so you can taste the difference yourself!
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Chepko Danil
  • F. vesca produces delicate berries
    F. vesca produces delicate berries about the size of a fingernail.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/erika_mondlova
  •  strawberry hybrids, F. moschata
    One of the parents of today's strawberry hybrids, F. moschata, has pointed, thickly furred leaves.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/katharinarau
  • South American F. chiloensis
    South American F. chiloensis has rounder leaves and larger fruit than most European strawberry species.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Mike
  • Sun-warmed strawberries
    Sun-warmed strawberries are a coveted summer treat.
    Photo by Getty Images/YuriyS

  • Modern strawberries are bigger
  • F. vesca produces delicate berries
  •  strawberry hybrids, F. moschata
  • South American F. chiloensis
  • Sun-warmed strawberries

In May 1770, the woods between Austria and France were dotted with the tiny red berries and delicate trefoil leaves of fraises des bois (Fragaria vesca), or “strawberries of the forest.” Their candy-sweet perfume, unmatched by the court perfumer at Versailles, might’ve been the first scent 14-year-old Marie Antoinette associated with her life as the Dauphine of France.

“It’s a very specific aroma,” says Philippe Chartier, a modern-day strawberry breeder for the Centre Interrégional de Recherche et d’Expérimentation de la Fraise (CIREF). “The aroma is very sweet, and kind of … woody. Maybe musky, yes, a little.” 

Sweet, gentle fragrances were revered at the French court, especially those that were hard to obtain, possibly because the palace at Versailles smelled so vile. “The park, the gardens, even the château, turn the stomach with their dreadful odors,” complained Marie Antoinette’s perfumer. Unfortunately, fraises des bois were smaller than a thimble, almost too tender to transport, and painstaking to collect in any great quantity, even for a king.

A legend holds that in A.D. 916, King Charles III was so delighted by the gift of a few pints of wild strawberries that he knighted the donor, Julius de Berry, and gave him a coat of arms bearing the five-petal strawberry blossom to signify righteousness and purity of intention. Berry was in turn so delighted by the knighthood that he adopted the surname “Frézier,” meaning “strawberry.” There are some holes in this legend, however: The French word fraise appears not to have been used to refer to strawberries alone until the 14th century, about 400 years after the legendary knighting. The coat of arms also poses problems: In France, as in the rest of medieval Europe, heraldry was formalized in the 12th century — and “canting,” or visual punning based on a person’s name or qualities, was rampant. The strawberry flowers on the arms of the Frézier family may have been a much later addition than the legend suggests.

Nearly 850 years after Julius de Berry received his knighthood, the first hybrid strawberries were emerging in France. In the late 18th century, during the time of Marie Antoinette, the pleasures of big, plentiful, modern strawberries were still remarkably new. Pastel pastries laden with strawberry hearts, baby-pink macarons, and red-jelly tarts were culinary inventions made possible by hybridized strawberries. But the luxurious berries decorating the young princess’s petits fours weren’t the sour jumbo fruits sold in plastic clamshells in American supermarkets today. Instead, they were delicate blends of flavors drawn from the wild strawberries native to France and the imports from Eastern Europe and the Americas. Modern French cultivars still share many of the aromatic and flavor notes of these early hybrids. “They’re better than from some other countries,” Chartier says, “because there is more aroma, and the taste — its sugar and acid — is more balanced.” Before these hybrids were developed, however, gardeners had been racking their brains and gardens for ways to produce larger, more consistent strawberries.

Strawberry Cultivation Frustration

By the 1300s, gardeners understood that strawberries self-cloned by producing runners, so they began transplanting wild strawberries to their gardens. Strawberries were common adornments in monasteries, where monks associated the pretty trifoliate leaves with the Holy Trinity. In 1368, King Charles V of France had his gardener collect 1,200 runners for the royal garden in Paris. But after just a few years, nearly half the verdant green plot would stop producing, requiring the gardener to head out into the woods again. Gardeners wouldn’t understand why some plants stopped producing, or never produced, for another 400 years.

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