One variety was found in Colonial Virginia. Another was found in South America about a century later, and they were accidentally bred together in Europe.
In 1619 English colonists discovered wild strawberries in an area around the Lynnhaven River near Cape Henry. The berries were larger than wild European varieties that had been prized for centuries. The Virginia strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, soon was cultivated and shipped to England.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the early 1700s a French spy scouting Spanish military forts in Chile sent another strawberry variety home. It also was larger than its European counterparts. But the Chilean variety didn’t thrive in France until it was planted next to the Virginia variety, creating Fragaria x ananassa, the ancestor of all modern strawberries.
Today strawberries are still important in the part of Virginia that gave birth to the modern fruit. In 2015 strawberry sales generated just under $1 million in cash receipts for the 16 growers in Virginia Beach, according to Roy Flanagan III, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in the city. The USDA reports Virginia Beach farmers sold $4.3 million in fruits and vegetables that year, so strawberries accounted for almost one-quarter of that total.
“Strawberries are something that consumers still want to pick themselves,” Flanagan said. “They still crave that time on the farm, and they’ll choose pick-your-own berries” over buying them from a store.
Picking strawberries with family or friends “is a good way to kick off the growing season,” said Robbie Vaughan, a Virginia Beach grower and Virginia Beach Farm Bureau member. “So far, so good this year. The weather has not been but so cooperative, but we just came off a great Mother’s Day, so that’s encouraging. As long as it stays cooler, we may be picking into June.”
Strawberries also are important to agriculture because they were one of the first plants deliberately modified through selective breeding.