Something about the combination of strawberries and cream seems quintessentially English. Think slightly rainy picnics and Pimm’s. Perhaps this association is because the combo has been a staple of Wimbledon since its first tournament in 1877. In fact, this summertime treat can be traced as far back as the early sixteenth century, with Thomas Wolsey (or, rather, his cooks) first serving it to Henry VII at a banquet at Hampton Court palace. But this gloss of “Englishness”, as opposed to the exotic pineapple, has perhaps meant that the colonial history of the strawberry has previously gone unquestioned.
The strawberries the Tudor court ate and those for sale nowadays on supermarket shelves are entirely different varieties. However, the variety of the fruit we know today as the strawberry results from a long history of crossbreeding varieties of strawberries extracted from across the length of the Americas. The history of the strawberry is thus a history of empire involving war, slavery, espionage, and the extractive colonial history of botany. In particular, the taste of the “modern” strawberry would not exist without the French, British, and Spanish Empires.
There have always been varieties of strawberries in Europe, but you might have never eaten them. In particular, three varieties (Fragaria vesca, Fragaria moschata, and Fragaria viridis) are known as wild or woodland strawberries. Archaeological evidence shows that humans have eaten these varieties since the Neolithic period. Later, in Ancient Rome, strawberries were often consumed during festivities celebrated in honour of Adonis, the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite, as according to myth, strawberries grew when Aphrodite’s tears mixed with the blood of the dead Adonis and dropped into the dirt.
Throughout medieval and early modern Europe, the woodland strawberry was also symbolically important. In the medieval period, strawberries were sometimes used as symbols in illuminated manuscripts with the three-part leaf as a reminder of the Holy Trinity. The red fruits, pointing downward, were representative of drops of Christ’s blood, and the five petals of its white flower were symbols of his five wounds. Symbolic strawberries also appear throughout Shakespeare’s corpus – often invoked as a symbol of virginity. The fruit was a favourite of royals: Charles V, King of France from 1364 to 1380, grew 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. Henry VIII’s infamous leg ulcer was at one point treated with ‘water of strawberries’, suggesting the fruit had medical uses too.
The Fragaria viginiana variety of strawberries grows across North America. For many Indigenous tribes across the region, they are a sacred fruit. According to the Cherokee, the strawberry was used by the Creator to unite the First Man and the First Woman. The Oneida, as with Henry VIII’s doctors, use strawberry water for medicinal purposes. For many tribes, June is celebrated as the “Strawberry Moon”, as it marks when strawberries begin to ripen. Fragaria virginiana was “discovered” by both the French and English when their empires invaded Turtle Island (the term for North America used by many northeastern Indigenous groups) in the sixteenth century. These North American strawberries were particularly small and sweet. Thomas Jefferson, remarking on strawberries (likely harvested by enslaved people) at his family’s plantation of Shadwell, Virginia, described how ‘100 [strawberries] fill half a pint’.
It appears the French colonisers “claimed” the strawberry first. In 1534, Jacques Cartier, the first European to travel inland in Turtle Island, described ‘vast patches of strawberries along the great river [Saint Lawrence] and in the woods’. Records suggest that these North American strawberries began to appear in France in the early 1600s. The first catalogued mention is from 1601, in the garden of Jean Robin in Paris, although there is no clear evidence of who brought these specimens to France.
The British Empire also “discovered” strawberries in the Americas a little later than the French. Several of the settler-colonists of the first English colonies write about strawberries. For example, Thomas Hariot, the scientific advisor to the infamous colony of Roanoke Island, wrote of this new variety of strawberry: ‘they are as great as those we have in English gardens’ (1588). A few years earlier, he had sent seeds back to England, but the resulting plants had struggled to thrive. Similarly, George Percy wrote about the berry when discussing the founding of Jamestown in 1607. In 1643, Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony, describes how the Indigenous made strawberry bread but that ‘the English have exceeded and make good wine’. In 1672, Robert Morison, a botanist at the University of Oxford, produced a clone of Fragaria virginiana that grew better in the English climate. After completing his doctorate in western France, Morison studied in Paris with Vespasien Robin – who himself was responsible for an early (1624) record of Fragaria virginiana.
As with Fragaria viginiana, the Chilean variety of the strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, is much larger than the varieties discussed above, although perhaps less sweet. Descriptions appear throughout the accounts of the invasion of Wallmapu (the ancestral territory of the Indigenous Mapuche). The story of this variety is closely tied to the history of the Arauco War, one of the longest wars in history, and one of the few that saw a European colonial power, the Spanish Empire, struggle to defeat an Indigenous people.
The Chilean variety of the fruit was also a key crop for Indigenous peoples across Wallmapu. Fragaria chiloensis was likely cultivated by both the Mapuche and the Huiliche people, as their language, Mapudungun, has specific words for both wild strawberries (llahuen, lahuene, or lahueni) and cultivated strawberries (quellghen). But at the beginning of the Spanish invasion of Wallmapu, in 1542, the first Spanish coloniser of Chile, Pedro de Valdivia coined a new word the describe the New World’s “new” fruit. While in European Spanish the word for strawberry was and is fresa, Valdivia referred to the Chilean strawberry as a frutilla (Spanish for little fruit). This word stuck and remains the term used for strawberry across much of South America.
As with Fragaria virginiana, descriptions of Fragaria chiloensis compare it favourably to European varieties. Jesuit priest and chronicler of the Arauco War, Alonso de Ovalle, writes that ‘[t]hey are very different from those that I have seen here in Rome, in terms of the flavour as with the smell and in terms of quantity, because they grow as large as pears, although they ordinarily are red, there are also, in Concepción [a town in southern Chile], white and yellow ones.’
One of the most troubling parts of the history of the strawberry is its rhetorical use to justify enslaving Indigenous peoples by highlighting the fertility of their land. Following a 1598 rebellion by the Mapuche and Huilliche people, the invading Spanish suffered a series of significant losses, which the latter termed The Destruction of the Seven Cities (1599 – 1604). Soldiers in Chile were forced to rethink their military strategy. In 1607, soldier Alonso González de Nájera (? – 1614) was sent to Spain by the Governor of the Captaincy General of Chile to advocate for new strategies and reinforcements from King Philip III. In his 1614 account of the war, essentially an extended argument for the enslavement of the Mapuche, Nájera dedicates a significant number of words to describing the virtues of the Chilean strawberry. These detailed descriptions of the incredible taste, smell, and appearance of the strawberry may have been part of a larger argument made by Nájera to convince King Philip III that the conquest of Chile was still worth supporting because of the fertility of the territory. However, his pleas were ignored in favour of a strategy that did not centre slavery.
A century later, in the story of the strawberry, the French Empire returns to the scene. In 1712, a spy named Amédée-François Frèzier (whose surname, coincidentally, is derived from fraise, French for strawberry) was set by King Louis XIV to study the defences of the Spanish colonies in South America. Although a lieutenant colonel of Army Intelligence, he pretended to be a merchant or trader to spy on Spanish fortifications. But Frèzier recorded more than just defences. He also wrote extensively about Indigenous customs and botany, including the strawberry. He returned to Marseille in 1714, bringing strawberry specimens, with 5 of the 12 plants surviving the journey to France. Once in France, however, they grew well but did not fruit. Frèzier had only brought female plants, which require pollination to produce strawberries. In 1717, Frèzier classified the fruit as Fragaria chiliensis, after its Chilean origin, but this was changed in 1753 to chiloensis after the Chilean island of Chiloé, where strawberries are abundant.
However, botanists soon realised that Fragaria chiloensis could be crossed with Fragaria muschata or Fragaria vesca (varieties of woodland strawberry). The most significant crossbreeding came in 1765, when French botanist Antoine-Nicolas Duchesne successfully crossed Fragaria chiloensis and Fragaria virginiana. This cross was named Fragaria x ananassa after another fruit from the New World – the pineapple – apparently due to the flavour. Having now combined the size of the Chilean variety and the sweetness of the Norther American, Fragaria x ananassa quickly became the favourite variety across Europe and remains so to this present day.
So, when you bite into a strawberry and complement its sweetness or size, you are making the same observations as centuries of soldiers, spies, and scientists from across three empires. The strawberry, as a fruit and a symbol, is a tangible reminder of how even the most mundane – or apparently British – aspects of everyday life have been shaped by colonialism.