Have you seen them? They’re back in the supermarkets—even our little small-town grocery store—big, shiny, alluring strawberries pretending to be on sale at $5 for a two-pound container. Do you know how fast a family of six-going-on-seven can inhale two pounds of strawberries? What family can afford to wolf down five dollars in one juicy, delirious, ten-minute frenzy? Not mine, that’s for sure.
And yet…yesterday I succumbed. When I placed the bowl of berries on the table after the broccoli had been dutifully dispensed with, oh how the children celebrated! What jubilant praises rang out, what an outpouring of gratitude for the beneficence of their marvelous mother!
(Their praise might have been tempered somewhat had they known what I was planning for my own dessert, after they were all in bed. While they snoozed in ignorance above stairs, I claimed the privilege of the eight-months-pregnant woman and treated myself to a giant helping of strawberry shortcake. Veteran readers of this blog may recall my fondness for confections consisting of berries, cake, and whipped cream.)
All right, indulging in those berries was a temporary lapse of prudence, and I stubbornly do not regret it. But it mustn’t happen again. Not too often. Um, maybe once a week. No! No, I must be strong…I need only wait a couple of months and then we’ll have berries raining down upon us like a scene from Jamberry. Hundreds of berries, free for the picking. Tiny alpines, delectably tangy. Giant, garishly red Sweet Charlies. Two or three other varieties whose names I’ve forgotten but whose merits haunt me all winter. Soon now, very soon….
I have never understood why more people don’t plant strawberries as groundcover. Perhaps my neighbors, who have been staring at dead berry leaves on my side-yard slope for four months, have a counteropinion. Sure, strawberries aren’t evergreen and by late February they look as pitiful and straggly as everything else in my yard. But wait until June. First the thick, attractive mat of leaves, then the dainty white blossoms, then the fat berries in that irresistible shade of red: a dangerous, tempting, sexy hue that suggests perhaps strawberries were the first new plant to come along after Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden. There is nothing demure about a strawberry.
Four years ago, inspired by Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, I spent about eighteen dollars on ten small strawberry plants. I planted some of them in the strip of landscaping border by my backyard deck stairs, where you’re supposed to have nice neat bunches of liriope. The other berry plants got plunked in the middle of a large, weed-plagued mulch bed that slopes steeply down to the ditch by the streetcorner.
Eighteen dollars: less than four times the amount we paid for last night’s gone-in-a-flash berry feast. And now I get a steady stream of berries from June to September. Like the wantons they are, the plants have multiplied with abandon: we must have hundreds of individual strawberry plants now, each fertile and heavy with fruit in its season. I am a neglectful gardener (just ask my neighbors) and I do nothing to baby these plants. I ignore them. I don’t do chemicals and I can’t be bothered with fertilizer or compost. We have terrible soil: thick red Virginia clay that is not at all disposed to encourage root growth. The kids’ caterpillar farm (fennel and rue) springs up right from the middle of the strawberry bed. The strawberries don’t care. They thrive on adversity. They scoff at the miserable growing conditions; they sneer at the crabgrass; they launch themselves over the retaining wall and bloom in mid-air. They send exploratory runners into the lawn, and Scott mows right over them. For this callous treatment, they reward us with a riotous, bountiful harvest. You can’t beat us down, they proclaim. You only encourage us to flaunt our fertility. We will, we must, reproduce! We will fill the world! Let those fat, bland, expensive greenhouse-grown excuses for berries beware! We are sun-warmed and sweet. We will make you weep for joy.
There is no modesty in strawberries.
Legend has it that if you share a double strawberry with someone, the two of you will fall in love. I doubt this has ever been proven: who shares a strawberry? Go pick your own!
Strawberries were long believed to be the symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love. This does not surprise me. Later, during medieval times, strawberries came to be associated with righteousness and perfection. Perfection, I can see. But righteousness? I think not. They are too decadent, almost indecent: so beautiful, so delicious. And yet you’ll sometimes see them carved on very old church altars and pillars, the signature of the stonemason. He was probably looking forward to a bowlful of berries and cream after work.
Jacques Cartier, traveling along the St. Lawrence to Quebec in 1534, wrote in his diary about “vast patches of strawberries along the great river and in the woods.” One wonders that his journey did not end right there!
“Doubtless God could have made a better berry,” wrote William Butler in the year 1600, “but doubtless God never did.”
Amen to that.
Children’s books to feed your strawberry appetite (as if such a thing needed help):
The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech. Engaging retelling of a Cherokee tale about the origin of strawberries, which were the sun’s way of patching up a quarrel between the first man and the first woman. Oh, canny sun: he causes the berries to spring up at the woman’s feet as she runs away from her husband; naturally, they distract her long enough for him to catch up, by which time her mood has greatly improved.
The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood. Oh, how I sympathize with the little mouse’s attempts to protect his one perfect berry from the ravenous bear!
Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski. 1946 Newbery Medalist about the struggle of a poor Florida family’s struggle to protect their berry crop from crows, the neighbors’ pigs, and weather. Gritty and honest, this middle-grade novel has been a frequent re-read for my two oldest daughters.
(More to come, but Wonderboy just woke up from his nap.)
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. A wordless picture book about the efforts of a comfortably frowsy-haired old woman to escape the thieving grasp of a mysterious creature who has his eye on her basket of berries. (Who can blame him?) I think I’ll send Jane upstairs to hunt for this book right now…I’m not sure Beanie remembers it, it’s been so long since we pulled it off the shelf.
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“A generation ago, there was no general conspiracy among writers to protect children.”