Strawberries Are Available Year-Round, but Summer Is Their True Season
A few weeks back, on June 20, the summer solstice coincided with a full Strawberry Moon, a name that originates, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, from the gathering of ripe wild strawberries by Algonquin tribes. The pairing was a once-in-a-generation occurrence, and on the North Fork of Long Island it was also distinguished by absolutely spectacular local strawberries, due in large part to a string of hot, sunny days that developed and concentrated their sweetness.
They’re real beauts, those strawberries—juicy and deep scarlet in color—so we’ve been gorging on them pretty much ever since, whether on breakfast grains or for dessert (including a no-cook strawberry ice cream). Aside from tasting like summer, strawberries are packed with vitamins (about eight of them provide more vitamin C than an orange), dietary fiber, and high levels of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant.
But they’ll disappear soon, and, not for the first time, I’ll wish I’d pulled it together and planted a backyard patch of Tristar strawbs. It’s a hybrid that is called day-neutral—that is, it isn’t affected by day length—so the plants will continue to produce fruit until the first frost. Just so you know, day-neutral strawberries are not genetically modified. In an email, fruit authority David Karp confirmed that no strawberries in commercial production are genetically modified.
For better or worse, though, strawberries have become a seasonless fruit. In the United States, cultivation on a commercial scale started in the 19th century, but most strawberries were grown and marketed locally. “Then, with advances in transportation and refrigeration, production came to be dominated by growers in coastal California, where mild weather allowed harvesting for up to five months a year,” Karp wrote in the June 2001 issue of Gourmet. “In recent decades, the California industry has introduced new ‘everbearing’ varieties, which flower and fruit for much longer than traditional June-bearing types.” Everbearing plants, which aren’t the same as day-neutral ones, produce two smaller crops—one in June and another in early fall.
“Most strawberry nurseries have also moved to remote high-desert areas, where the chilly summer nights mimic winter, stimulating the plants to fruit soon after they are moved down to the coast in the fall,” Karp said.
Timing is key when it comes to fruit quality. In a 2010 Market Watch report for the Los Angeles Times, Karp pointed out that strawberries grown November through January can be extraordinarily rich in flavor, perhaps because they mature so slowly. The downside? Production and flavor are often washed out by rainstorms (which, at the time, still happened with some regularity in California).
Generally speaking, commercial breeders are more concerned with size (giant berries command premium prices), firmness (for better shipping and shelf life), and disease and pest resistance than they are with taste. These days, water shortage issues are front and center as well. According to a July 2014 report by the National Science Foundation, strawberries (along with raspberries and blackberries) drive the agricultural economy along California’s Central Coast. Berries aren’t among the thirstiest crops, but they need a steady supply of water. In addition to exploring crop rotation and water-conservation strategies, growers have collaborated with the Palo Alto–based American Institute of Mathematics, funded by the National Science Foundation, to deal with what participants called an “optimization problem.”
Dan Balbas, vice president of operations for Reiter Affiliated Companies, a grower for Driscoll’s Berries, thought what the math institute did best was shed light on how much fruit they were getting out of the irrigation water they used and how it varied crop to crop. “We found that raspberries—from a per-unit-of-water standpoint—were a better crop, so we’ve grown the raspberry program a little bit,” he said. “Of course, that changed the economics. In fact, we have so many more raspberries now, it would be good to do the analysis again. It’s a moving target. There are a lot more raspberries in the valley—partly because of water but partly because it was just good business.”
Raspberries, like blackberries, are no slouch in the nutrition department, and I’m fortunate that I have a terrific source for red, golden, and black raspberries right down the road at Oysterponds Farm in Orient, New York. I’m delighted that black raspberries, in particular, are becoming more popular—or rather, becoming popular again. When I was a child, my grandparents, along with many of their contemporaries, grew them, and one of my earliest garden memories (aside from picking spearmint for iced tea and my parents’ Cool o’ the Evening cocktails) was gathering the small, inky, intensely flavored berries. These days, they’re cultivated on a large scale in Oregon by outfits like Columbia Empire Farms, which also grows strawberries, red raspberries, and hybrids like the tender Marionberry, which was developed in Corvallis, Oregon, in the 1940s by George F. Waldo and named after the county in which it was bred.
Happily, organic berries are becoming more widely available (strawberries are high in pesticide residues, according to the Environmental Working Group), but whether you choose organic or conventional, pick the fruit over after buying and discard any that are bruised, as any decay will spread rapidly. If the berries come in a wooden or cardboard container, gently return them to it, then put the container in a brown paper bag and refrigerate. Strawberries and raspberries are fragile, especially local ones, because they tend to be softer cultivars and are picked when bursting with ripeness. That’s why it’s important to keep them as dry as possible, so wash and pat dry just before using. If you’ve overbought, there’s no reason to stress out. If you freeze a supply, you can taste the summer sun all winter long.