Once upon a strawberry.In a faraway land and a time long ago, carpets of fields lay sprinkled with wild bushes. Nestled beneath the bushes were clusters of scarlet, heart-shaped berries, dimpled with tiny seeds and crowned with green caps. This fruit always appeared with the first breezes of summer. Sound familiar? It should--it's the common strawberry.
The strawberry has been an interesting and important food throughout history. We now know that wild strawberries existed in prehistoric times.
The fruit itself is highly perishable and would be difficult to preserve, but samples of fossilized strawberry seeds have been found. This discovery implies that the strawberry has been with us for a very long time.
Two thousand years ago, the Greeks were praising the strawberry for its mystical medicinal properties. These included cleansing the blood and the body organs! In addition, strawberries were said to produce a calm, tranquilizing effect on a person and were often prescribed to soothe flared and angry tempers. Quite a powerful task for a handful of berries!
Strawberries were common in the American Indians' diet. Indians crushed the berries into a paste-like substance and then mixed this with cornmeal to make strawberry bread.
If you were superstitious, to dream of strawberries was a very good omen. In addition, strawberries have been associated with goodness and purity in Christian history. The strawberry was once believed to be a holy symbol associated with the Virgin Mary. In pictures of Mary, many artists used strawberries in the detail of the picture or border. From holy symbol it was only a short hop to the claim that those born with a small red birthmark (called a strawberry mark) were born under the sign of royalty.
The cultivation of strawberries did not begin until the 1400s. However, it wasn't primarily for the delicious taste of the fruit. If you lived in the Middle Ages, you might consider chewing or steeping the fragrant strawberry leaves in a tea to ward off bothersome spirits and to rid yourself of any nightmares.
In the 1500s, the English were using strawberry recipes as a cure-all for a multitude of problems ranging from bad breath to bone deformities. At the same time, in other parts of the world, a strawberry concoction was either drunk or directly sponged onto the skin as a cure for leprosy.
For hundreds of years, the strawberry has been praised as a beauty aid. Many a maiden has been disappointed when the secret ingredients of a strawberry cream did not remove either her freckles or facial blemishes. This isn't surprising, since the strawberry is composed of 90 percent water. If allowed to ripen on the vine, however, it is very rich in vitamins C, B1, and B2, and the mineral iron.
Today, there are over 1,000 different varieties of strawberries, and the United States leads the world in strawberry production. California alone is responsible for almost a quarter of the world's production.
While it may not be the miracle berry that it was once thought to be in ancient times, the strawberry remains one of the most popular fruits in the world. It doesn't matter if you prefer to eat strawberries in the form of pies, jams and jellies, or if you'd rather just brush off the dirt and bite into a delightful taste of summer. The next time you see a strawberry, consider that this simple fruit really is the stuff from which fairy tales were made!
Illustrated by Fred Daunno