Wild species of the strawberry plant grow in the temperate regions of North and South America and Europe. Strawberries were important to ancient American civilizations long before Europeans arrived. When colonists first settled in Virginia, strawberries were already a locally cultivated crop. Modern commercial strawberries trace back to a chance cross-pollination between berries collected from Virginia and descendants of five strawberry plants that survived a long voyage from Chile to the fields of Normandy.
The agricultural history of strawberries dates back at least 2,200 years. Early American civilizations in Chile and Peru--where strawberries are still an important crop today--both grew and traded strawberries. European explorers landing in Virginia in 1588 mentioned local strawberries in their journals, and in 1643 the early Massachusetts settlers enjoyed strawberries raised by the local Native American farmers. Strawberry shortcake originated from the crossing of the two cultures--colonists developed their own version of the bread Native Americans made from cornmeal and strawberry batter.
Because strawberries were only recently important to European agriculture, European records seldom mention the plant. Ancient Europeans certainly knew and gathered the European wild strawberry, but the small and flavorful Alpine strawberry did not become popular as a garden fruit until the 14th century. Strawberries drew the culinary attention of royal families in both England and France, and by 1430 could be purchased in season from street vendors in London. By the 1600s European varieties--with white, red and green ripe fruits and distinctly different flavors--became locally important garden crops.
European explorers found Virginia strawberry varieties and transported specimens back to European gardens. In 1714 French engineer Amédée François Frézier brought Chilean strawberry plants back to France. Five plants survived the voyage and propagated successfully in Normandy but bore no fruit. Thirty years later when Virginia strawberries were planted near them, the Chilean plants bore strawberries. In 1761 the cross-pollinating plants created a new strain called Versailles, with the large fruit of the Chilean plant and the intense flavor of the Virginian. This hybrid was the first of the modern commercial strawberry cultivars.
In the 1800s strawberries again became an important market crop on American farms, first near major eastern cities and then moving west with the pioneers. Henderson Leulling transported his family and two wagon loads of fruit trees, nuts and berry plants from Iowa to Oregon in 1846, beginning the berry industry of Oregon and Washington. A chance seedling from a Portland field became one of the first American commercial cultivars. As new varieties with longer fruiting seasons were developed for the fields of California, that state became the largest American producer, with an annual harvest of about one billion pounds.
Strawberries were not always accepted in Europe. In the 12th Century, Saint Hildegard Von Binger decreed the strawberry unfit to eat, since it grew in the company of snakes and toads. Her campaign against the berry had lasting influence on public opinion of the fruit. In the 1700s Karl Von Linne disproved the theory by living totally--though briefly--on a diet of strawberries alone.