Berried Treasure

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

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By late afternoon it's pleasantly balmy, but Swartz is wearing down. He says his knees ache. His fingers are stained winy red. "I'm starting to lose it, frankly," he says. "I've had too many strawberries." What would drive him to spend his own money and more than a decade tasting roughly 100,000 berries, many of them dreadful, with the prospects for reward uncertain? "It's just a stupid donkey attitude—I've got to do this or else there's no reason for me to do anything. I have the religion of moschata."

By the second morning of my Florida visit, Swartz has identified three musk hybrids with promising characteristics. From one plant, he clips runners and wraps them in moist paper towels; he'll take them back to his greenhouse in Maryland and propagate them into genetically identical offspring—clones. From another plant he plucks unopened flowers, pulls off the pollen-coated anthers and drops them into a bag, for direct use in pollinating other plants to make new crosses. "It's really cool," he says. "After seven years of hard work, I can actually eat this and show people—here's a large-sized fruit with this flavor."

This past spring, Swartz says he made further progress at a test plot in Virginia after he crossed a bland commercial strawberry with his hybrids and obtained more new plants with good moschata flavor. Swartz says he's about three or four years from developing a musk hybrid with commercially competitive yield, size and shelf life. Still, he may have a hard time bucking the American fruit marketing system's demand for varieties that appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. But he has always been motivated less by financial gain than by curiosity, the promise of a bit of adventure—and a touch of obsession. "I really don't care if this works or not, it's just so much fun getting there," he says. "When it happens, it'll be, 'I've found the holy grail, now what do I do with it?'"

David Karp, a freelance writer and photographer specializing in fruit, is working on a book about fruit connoisseurship.


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