Strawberries have been popular throughout recorded history. References date back to 200 B.C., and the fruit has always been considered special. So how did this rare and seasonal “June bearing” novelty become a mainstream commercial fruit available in your grocery store year-round?
The wild strawberry of North America is still considered one of the best flavors in the world. As early as 1534 settlers took plants from Quebec back to Paris, and gardeners at Versailles Palace worked for over 100 years to develop larger berries for the King and the elite of France.
However the big botanical breakthrough happened in 18th Century Europe when Spanish explorers brought large berries discovered in Chile back to Europe to breed with the tiny wild Virginia strawberry with the intense flavor. Without such human intervention, the flavorful, big red strawberries we eat today would never have developed! Through continued selective breeding, improvements slowly evolved. We will discuss the breeding process in more detail in a future article – it is fascinating!
In 1843, farmers near Cincinnati, Ohio began shipping fruit commercially with the boxes packed in ice. River transport provided distribution from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, but strawberries remained an expensive seasonal specialty – usually only available in June.
Following the Civil War, the steamship and railroad industry expanded rapidly. One of the big industrialists in the Southeast was Henry Plant. As part of his transportation network, he built a large resort hotel in Tampa, FL as a winter playground for the wealthy to enjoy hunting, fishing, and the beaches.
He noticed the farm community 25 miles away was producing strawberries in the dead of winter. Being a smart businessman (and railroad owner), Mr. Plant built a rail spur to the fields. This not only provided a unique winter treat for his hotel guests – it allowed the farmers access to interstate rail distribution.
Soon the farms were shipping crates of strawberries in ice-cooled rail cars to stores and restaurants from Atlanta to New York. Florida winter strawberries became a commercial success, and the farm town was renamed Plant City in Henry Plant’s honor.
Today Plant City, Florida is still called the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, but our healthy, delicious fruit is no longer just a luxury for the wealthy. Our farmers are proud to produce over 200 million pounds of America’s most popular berry from November through April every year, and we can deliver in less than three days from harvest to Chicago, Kansas City, or Montreal.
Look for the Florida label in your supermarket and enjoy the taste of summer all winter long!