Yummy Strawberries You Can Smell!

Germany - Scott #B1028 (2010)
Germany – Scott #B1028 (2010)

When I first came to Thailand, strawberries were rarely encountered and expensive when found. Now, they are quite common and loved to such a degree that my community recently held a week-long strawberry festival through which I had to walk everyday on my way to work (and I didn’t think to take a single photograph of, not realizing that I’d soon come across today’s stamp from Germany). Before researching this article, I probably thought of the fruit as “American” similar to the way I used to perceive pineapples, bananas and apples — none of which are natives of North America at all. I do need to brush up on my food history! My favorite strawberry treats are strawberry shortcake and chocolate-covered strawberries (neither of which I have had in several years); the last snacks I ate containing the fruit were yoghurt (a local Thai brand which is filled with big chunks) and imported Pocky, a Japanese candy.

The garden strawberry (Fragaria ananassa) is a widely grown hybrid species of the genus Fragaria. It is cultivated worldwide for its fruit. The fruit is widely appreciated for its characteristic aroma, bright red color, juicy texture, and sweetness. It is consumed in large quantities, either fresh or in such prepared foods as preserves, juice, pies, ice creams, milkshakes, and chocolates. Artificial strawberry flavorings and aromas are also widely used in many products like lip gloss, candy, hand sanitizers, perfume, and many others.

The garden strawberry was first bred in Brittany, France, in the 1750s via a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis, which was brought from Chile by Amédée-François Frézier in 1714. Cultivars of Fragaria ananassa have replaced, in commercial production, the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the early 17th century.

The strawberry is not, from a botanical point of view, a berry. Technically, it is an aggregate accessory fruit, meaning that the fleshy part is derived not from the plant’s ovaries but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries. Each apparent “seed” (achene) on the outside of the fruit is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it.

The first garden strawberry was grown in Brittany, France during the late 18th century. Prior to this, wild strawberries and cultivated selections from wild strawberry species were the common source of the fruit.

The strawberry fruit was mentioned in ancient Roman literature in reference to its medicinal use. The French began taking the strawberry from the forest to their gardens for harvest in the 14th century. Charles V, France’s king from 1364 to 1380, had 1,200 strawberry plants in his royal garden. In the early 15th century western European monks were using the wild strawberry in their illuminated manuscripts. The strawberry is found in Italian, Flemish, and German art, and in English miniatures. The entire strawberry plant was used to treat depressive illnesses.

By the 16th century, references of cultivation of the strawberry became more common. People began using it for its supposed medicinal properties and botanists began naming the different species. In England the demand for regular strawberry farming had increased by the mid-16th century.

The combination of strawberries and cream was created by Thomas Wolsey in the court of King Henry VIII. Instructions for growing and harvesting strawberries showed up in writing in 1578. By the end of the 16th century three European species had been cited: F. vesca, F. moschata, and F. viridis. The garden strawberry was transplanted from the forests and then the plants would be propagated asexually by cutting off the runners.

Two subspecies of F. vesca were identified: F. sylvestris alba and F. sylvestris semperflorens. The introduction of F. virginiana from Eastern North America to Europe in the 17th century is an important part of history because this species gave rise to the modern strawberry. The new species gradually spread through the continent and did not become completely appreciated until the end of the 18th century. When a French excursion journeyed to Chile in 1712, it introduced the strawberry plant with female flowers that resulted in the common strawberry that we have today.

The Mapuche and Huilliche Indians of Chile cultivated the female strawberry species until 1551, when the Spanish came to conquer the land. In 1765, a European explorer recorded the cultivation of F. chiloensis, the Chilean strawberry. At first introduction to Europe, the plants grew vigorously but produced no fruit. It was discovered in 1766 that the female plants could only be pollinated by plants that produced large fruit: F. moschata, F. virginiana, and F. ananassa. This is when the Europeans became aware that plants had the ability to produce male-only or female-only flowers. As more large-fruit producing plants were cultivated the Chilean strawberry slowly decreased in population in Europe, except for around Brest where the Chilean strawberry thrived. The decline of the Chilean strawberry was caused by F. ananassa.

Picking home-grown garden strawberries on June 14, 2012.
Picking home-grown garden strawberries on June 14, 2012.

Strawberry cultivars vary widely in size, color, flavor, shape, degree of fertility, season of ripening, liability to disease and constitution of plant. On average, a strawberry has about 200 seeds on its external membrane. Some vary in foliage, and some vary materially in the relative development of their sexual organs. In most cases, the flowers appear hermaphroditic in structure, but function as either male or female. For purposes of commercial production, plants are propagated from runners and, in general, distributed as either bare root plants or plugs. Cultivation follows one of two general models — annual plasticulture, or a perennial system of matted rows or mounds. Greenhouses produce a small amount of strawberries during the off season.

The bulk of modern commercial production uses the plasticulture system. In this method, raised beds are formed each year, fumigated, and covered with plastic to prevent weed growth and erosion. Plants, usually obtained from northern nurseries, are planted through holes punched in this covering, and irrigation tubing is run underneath. Runners are removed from the plants as they appear, in order to encourage the plants to put most of their energy into fruit development. At the end of the harvest season, the plastic is removed and the plants are plowed into the ground. Because strawberry plants more than a year or two old begin to decline in productivity and fruit quality, this system of replacing the plants each year allows for improved yields and denser plantings. However, because it requires a longer growing season to allow for establishment of the plants each year, and because of the increased costs in terms of forming and covering the mounds and purchasing plants each year, it is not always practical in all areas.

The other major method, which uses the same plants from year to year growing in rows or on mounds, is most common in colder climates. It has lower investment costs, and lower overall maintenance requirements. Yields are typically lower than in plasticulture.

Another method uses a compost sock. Plants grown in compost socks have been shown to produce significantly higher oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), flavonoids, anthocyanins, fructose, glucose, sucrose, malic acid, and citric acid than fruit produced in the black plastic mulch or matted row systems. Similar results in an earlier 2003 study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, confirms how compost plays a role in the bioactive qualities of two strawberry cultivars.

Fragaria ananassa in the UBC Botanical Garden, on June 1, 2015.
Fragaria ananassa in the UBC Botanical Garden, on June 1, 2015.

Strawberries are often grouped according to their flowering habit. Traditionally, this has consisted of a division between “June-bearing” strawberries, which bear their fruit in the early summer and “ever-bearing” strawberries, which often bear several crops of fruit throughout the season.[16] Research published in 2001 showed that strawberries actually occur in three basic flowering habits: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. These refer to the day-length sensitivity of the plant and the type of photoperiod that induces flower formation. Day-neutral cultivars produce flowers regardless of the photoperiod.

Strawberries may also be propagated by seed, though this is primarily a hobby activity, and is not widely practiced commercially. A few seed-propagated cultivars have been developed for home use, and research into growing from seed commercially is ongoing. Seeds (achenes) are acquired either via commercial seed suppliers, or by collecting and saving them from the fruit.

Strawberries can also be grown indoors in strawberry pots.

Most strawberry plants are now fed with artificial fertilizers, both before and after harvesting, and often before planting in plasticulture.

To maintain top quality, berries are harvested at least every other day. The berries are picked with the caps still attached and with at least half an inch of stem left. Strawberries need to remain on the plant to fully ripen because they do not continue to ripen after being picked. Rotted and overripe berries are removed to minimize insect and disease problems. The berries do not get washed until just before consumption.

Soil test information and plant analysis results are used to determine fertility practices. Nitrogen fertilizer is needed at the beginning of every planting year. There are normally adequate levels of phosphorus and potash when fields have been fertilized for top yields. In order to provide more organic matter, a cover crop of wheat or rye is planted in the winter before planting the strawberries. Strawberries prefer a pH from 5.5 to 6.5 so lime is usually not applied.

The harvesting and cleaning process has not changed substantially over time. The delicate strawberries are still harvested by hand. Grading and packing often occurs in the field, rather than in a processing facility. In large operations, strawberries are cleaned by means of water streams and shaking conveyor belts.

Strawberries on display at Chelsea Flower Show, June 19, 2008.
Strawberries on display at Chelsea Flower Show, June 19, 2008.

Strawberries are popular and rewarding plants to grow in the domestic environment, be it for consumption or exhibition purposes, almost anywhere in the world. The best time to plant is in late summer or spring. Plant in full sun or dappled shade, and in somewhat sandy soil. The addition of manure and a balanced fertilizer aids strong growth. Alternatively they can be planted in pots or special planters using compost. Fiber mats placed under each plant will protect fruits from touching the ground, and will act as a weed barrier.

Strawberries are tough and will survive many conditions, but during fruit formation, moisture is vital, especially if growing in containers. Moreover, protection must be provided against slugs and snails which attack the ripe fruit. The fruit matures in midsummer (wild varieties can mature earlier) and should be picked when fully ripe — that is, the fruit is a uniform bright red color. The selection of different varieties can extend the season in both directions. Numerous cultivars have been selected for consumption and for exhibition purposes.

Propagation is by runners, which can be pegged down to encourage them to take root, or cut off and placed in a new location. Established plants should be replaced every three years, or sooner if there are signs of disease.

When propagating strawberries, one should avoid using the same soil or containers that were previously used for strawberry cultivation. After cultivating strawberries, rotating to another culture is advisable, because diseases that attack one species might not attack another.

Strawberries dipped in chocolate. Photo taken on May 21, 2014.
Strawberries dipped in chocolate. Photo taken on May 21, 2014.

In addition to being consumed fresh, strawberries can be frozen, made into preserves, as well as dried and used in prepared foods, such as cereal bars. Strawberries and strawberry flavorings are a popular addition to dairy products, such as strawberry-flavored milk, strawberry ice cream, strawberry milkshakes, strawberry smoothies, and strawberry yoghurts.

Strawberries and cream is a popular dessert during the British summer, famously consumed at the Wimbledon tennis tournament. In Sweden, strawberries are a traditional dessert served on St.. John’s Day, also known as Midsummer’s Eve. Depending on the area, strawberry pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, or strawberry shortcake are also popular. In Greece, strawberries are usually sprinkled with sugar and then dipped in Metaxa, a famous brandy, and served as a dessert. In Italy, strawberries have been used for various desserts and as a popular flavoring for gelato (gelato alla fragola). In the Philippines, strawberries are also popular, in which it is used for making the syrup in taho.

Strawberry pigment extract can be used as a natural acid/base indicator due to the different color of the conjugate acid and conjugate base of the pigment.

As strawberry flavor and fragrance are popular characteristics for consumers, they are used widely in a variety of manufacturing, including foods, beverages, confections, perfumes and cosmetics.

Sweetness, fragrance and complex flavor are favorable attributes. In plant breeding and farming, emphasis is placed on sugars, acids, and volatile compounds, which improve the taste and fragrance of a ripe strawberry. Esters, terpenes, and furans are chemical compounds having the strongest relationships to strawberry flavor and fragrance, with a total of 31 volatile compounds significantly correlated to favorable flavor and fragrance.

Strawberries for sale at Mahabaleshwar, a hill station on the west coast of India. Photo taken on May 22, 2015.
Strawberries for sale at Mahabaleshwar, a hill station on the west coast of India. Photo taken on May 22, 2015.

One serving (100 grams) of strawberries contains approximately 33 kilocalories, is an excellent source of vitamin C, a good source of manganese, and provides several other vitamins and dietary minerals in lesser amounts. Strawberries contain a modest amount of essential unsaturated fatty acids in the achene (seed) oil.

Few studies have directly examined the effects of eating strawberries on human health. However, limited research indicates that strawberry consumption may be associated with a decreased cardiovascular disease risk and that phytochemicals present in strawberries have anti-inflammatory or anticancer properties in laboratory studies. Epidemiological studies have associated strawberry consumption with lower rates of hypertension, inflammation, cancer, and death from cardiovascular diseases. Certain studies have suggested that strawberry consumption may have beneficial effects in humans such as lowering blood LDL cholesterol levels, total cholesterol, reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, and decreasing the spike in blood sugar after high sugar meals and the spike in blood cholesterol seen after high-fat meals.

I do enjoy “random stamp days” as I never the topic until I sit down and start looking through my stamps. Once something strikes my eye, I then begin doing the research and I always learn something new. Today’s topic had the added benefit of making me hungry for strawberries so I will seek some out not long after I hit the “Publish” button in a few minutes. Germany has had a long history of interesting stamp designs and I find so much of the country’s modern output just as intriguing as the earliest issues. Most of my recently-issued German stamps come to me on postcards and letters; my ancestry is German on both sides of my family so I do have an affinity for the nation in so many areas.

Today’s stamp was released in a set of four traditional lick-and-stick adhesive semi-postal stamps perforated 14 and one self-adhesive stamp (repeating the strawberry design) with die-cut perforations of 10¾ (Scott #B1026-B1030). The latter was issued in a booklet pane of 10. The five lithographed stamps portraying fruit were released on January 2, 2010, with each picturing the blossom along with the fruit itself, both whole and halved. In addition to a very pleasing design, the stamps were given a scratch-and-sniff coating to produce the scent of the individual fruits. The lowest denomination, 45 cents + 20 cents, featured an apple (Malus domestica), while one of the three 55-cent + 25-cent stamps contained a lemon (Citrus limon) and today’s Scott #B1028 had the strawberry (which is also on the self-adhesive Scott #B1030). Finally, a 145-cent + 55-cent high value stamp pictured a blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).

The scents were contained in microencapsulated fragrant oils that were built right into the paper the stamps were made from. When you rub your finger over the fruit or flower on each stamp, you can smell the wonderful fragrance of the fruit. Germany is not the first entity to issue scented stamps — Bhutan holds that honor — there is an ever-growing collection of fragrant stamps being released each year including chocolate from Switzerland, the rainforest from Brazil, the sea from South Korea, and — almost better than the German strawberry — a mango from French Polynesia. There is no word on whether the stamps taste as good as they smell, but I don’t recommend trying to find out!

If you are interested in similar “extraordinary stamps,” have a look at this list of those issued in 2010.

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