The beginning of the 18th century was a turbulent time across Europe. On 1 November 1700 the Spanish King Charles II died, leaving no natural heirs. In his will he left the throne to the grandson of Louis XIV of France, sparking a 12-year-long war, known as the War of Succession. Apart from shifting the political map of the continent and eventually dividing an Empire, this war had one other unexpected side effect – it created the modern-day strawberry.
During the later stages of the war, things were not going great for France and, fearing that their access to South America may be blocked, Louis send a military engineer named Amedée François Frézier on a reconnaissance mission into the ports of Chile and Peru. His task was to gather intelligence, creating maps and taking notes on the fortifications. While there he took special notice of the Chilean strawberry. Although strawberries have been grown in Europe for hundreds of years, they had remained very tiny and were consumed only as a form of delicacy. However, on the other side of the world, between the Andes and the Pacific, people have been cultivating them for much longer. A distant descendant of the North American strawberries, they are believed to have been transported south some 100,000 years ago by migrating birds. There, domesticated by the local Picunche and Mapuche people, they grew much larger.
Fascinated by their size and familiar with the king’s famous love for the fruit, he brought back five living plants. Unfortunately, he picked out only plants with fruit on them, meaning they were all female. Without a male to pollinate them, back in France they remained barren. Crossing them with the European species was also impossible, because the American strawberries had a different number of chromosomes. That is, until the villagers at the city of Brest, noticed their resemblance to the North American Virginia species, which was brought back to Europe during the 1600s. When they planted the two species next to each other, they produced large and aromatic fruits. And much more importantly, their seeds sprouted hybrid plants, which themselves could produce fruit. Eventually the new species spread around the globe and every strawberry sold today is a variety of it.
Surprisingly, strawberries aren’t actually berries. Scientifically, a berry has a fleshy fruit with it’s seeds on the inside – like avocados, bananas, tomato or watermelon. Strawberries have their seed on the outside and are what is called an aggregate fruit.