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Berried Treasure

Why is horticulturalist Harry Jan Swartz so determined to grow an exotic strawberry beloved by Jane Austen?

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There's something curious going on at the pick-your-own strawberry farm amid the bland expanse of tract homes and strip malls southwest of Miami. In row after row on the ten-acre property, the plants appear uniform, but in a far corner set off by a line of habanero chili vines, each strawberry plant has a slightly different color and growth pattern. This is a test plot where a stubborn University of Maryland horticulturist named Harry Jan Swartz is attempting to breed a strawberry unlike any tasted in the United States for more than a century. He's searching for what may be the most elusive prize in the highly competitive, secretive, $1.4 billion-a-year strawberry industry—marketable varieties with the flavor of Fragaria moschata, the musk strawberry, the most aromatic strawberry of all.

Native to the forests of central Europe, the musk strawberry is larger than fraises des bois, the tiny, fragrant, wild alpine strawberries beloved by backyard gardeners, and smaller than the common strawberry, the supermarket-friendly but often dull-tasting hybrid that dominates sales worldwide. The musk strawberry has mottled brownish red or rose-violet skin, and tender white flesh. Its hallmark is its peculiar floral, spicy aroma, different from and far more complex than the modern strawberry's, with hints of honey, musk and wine; a recent analysis by German flavor chemists detected notes of melon, raspberry, animal and cheese. Adored by some people, detested by others, the aroma is so powerful that a few ripe berries can perfume a room.

From the 16th to the mid-19th centuries, the musk strawberry—known as moschuserdbeere in Germany, hautbois in France and hautboy in England—was widely cultivated in Europe. In Jane Austen's Emma, guests at a garden party rave about it: "hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable." But because growers in those days did not always understand the species' unusual pollination requirements, musk cultivations typically had such scanty yields they seemed virtually sterile. Thomas A. Knight, an eminent horticulturist and pioneering strawberry breeder, wrote in 1806: "If nature, in any instance, permits the existence of vegetable mules—but this I am not inclined to believe—these plants seem to be beings of that kind." Also, the berries are very soft, so they don't keep or travel well. By the early 20th century, musk varieties had mostly disappeared from commercial cultivation, replaced by firmer, higher yielding, self-pollinating modern strawberries.

From This Story

But the legend of the musk strawberry persisted among a few scientists and fruit connoisseurs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became enamored of its musky flavor as a boy traveling in Germany, later asked his secretary of agriculture and vice president, Henry A. Wallace, to encourage government strawberry breeders to experiment with musk varieties at the Agriculture Department's breeding collection in Beltsville, Maryland. It was there, in the early 1980s, that the musk aroma captivated a young professor at the University of Maryland, in nearby College Park.

After years at the forefront of berry science, Swartz in 1998 launched an audacious private program to overcome the biological barriers that had thwarted breeders for centuries. "If I can grow a huge, firm fruit that's got the flavor of moschata," Swartz told me a few years ago, "then I can die in peace."

On this unusually chilly January dawn outside Miami, we're checking up on his dream at his test plot next to a weed-choked canal. Swartz, 55, is wearing a black polo shirt and chinos. He is shivering. He bends over and examines a plant, ruffling the leaves to expose the berries. He picks one, bites into it. "Ugh." He makes notes on a clipboard. He tries another, and wrinkles his nose. "That’s what I call a sick moschata." The fruit has some of the elements of musk flavor, he explains, but with other flavors missing or added, or out of balance, the overall effect is nastily deranged, like a symphony reduced to cacophony.

Before the day is done Swartz will have scoured the test patch to sample fruits from all 3,000 plants, which are seedlings grown from crosses made in his Maryland greenhouse. They belong to his third generation of crosses, all ultimately derived from wild strawberry hybrids devised by Canadian researchers.

Swartz keeps tasting, working his way down the seven rows of plants sticking out of the white-plastic covered ground. "Floor cleaner," he says of one. "Diesel." "Sweat socks." He is not discouraged—yet. For many years, until his knees gave out, Swartz was a marathon runner, and he's in this project for the long haul, working test fields from Miami to Montreal in his unlikely quest to discover a few perfect berries.

“You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a princess,” he says.

The modern cultivated strawberry is a relative newcomer, the result of chance crosses between two New World species, the Virginian and the Chilean, in European gardens starting about 1750. This "pineapple" strawberry, called F. x ananassa, inherited hardiness, sharp flavor and redness from the Virginian, and firmness and large fruit size from the Chilean. In the 19th century, the heyday of fruit connoisseurship, the best varieties of this new hybrid species (according to contemporary accounts) offered extraordinary richness and diversity of flavor, with examples evoking raspberry, apricot, cherry and currant.

Alas, no other fruit has been so radically transformed by industrial agriculture. Breeders over the decades have selected varieties for large size, high production, firmness, attractive color and resistance to pests and diseases; flavor has been secondary. Still, fresh strawberry consumption per capita has tripled in the past 30 years, to 5.3 pounds annually, and the United States is the world’s largest producer, with California dominating the market, accounting for 87 percent of the nation's crop.

What's missing most from commercial berries is fragrance, the original quality that gave the strawberry genus its name, Fragaria. To boost aroma, strawberry breeders, particularly in Europe, have long tried to cross alpine and musk varieties with cultivated ones, but with little success. Only in 1926 did scientists discover why the different species are not readily compatible: the wild and musk species have fewer sets of chromosomes than modern strawberries. As a result of this genetic mismatch, direct hybrids between these species typically produced few fruits, and these were often misshapen and had few seeds; the seeds in turn usually did not germinate, or produced short-lived plants.

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