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It is strawberry time. All the markets are displaying red, succulent, wonderfully scented strawberries. Most of us are making the most of this annual treat with everything from strawberry pies and flans to good, old-fashioned delectable strawberry shortcake.
Strawberries seem as American as Uncle Sam, and they have a long, completely American history.
The first settlers in Porstmouth, N.H., called their new village “Strawberry Banke” because of the lavish fields of wild strawberries they had found there and joyously used in every possible way.
At the time, Roger Williams commented that they were “the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts.” A prominent doctor in England at that time said, “God could probably have made a better berry, but never did make a better berry.”
Thomas Tusser, an early 19th century writer on agricultural subjects, published a long poem about the marvels of strawberries in New England.
Strawberry wine was made in man colonial households from the so-bountiful wild fruit.
In many medieval paintings of religious themes, strawberries are very prominent as religious symbols signifying righteousness with their trefoil leaves illustrating the Trinity.
No wonder strawberry leaves, made of gold, ornament so many royal crowns and coronets.
Anyone familiar with Chinese art will recognize the significance of the peach as depicted in paintings, sculpture and its mention in poetry and other writings.
Peaches are native to China and have been cultivated there since very ancient times. As early as 100 A.D., they arrived in Greece and Rome, and they fact they were then called Persian apples tells us how they got there.
In Persia, apricots were called sun eggs. They found their way to ancient Rome by way of Armenia and finally reached England in the 16th century. There, they were termed “early procox.”
They appeared in Portugal at about the same time. It was the Portuguese who discovered how to preserve apricots in syrup.
Some theories have it that golden apples so often referred to in the writings of antiquity were really peaches or apricots. Apples as we know them are almost a universal fruit, and cider is an equally universal beverage.
The many varieties of pears all derived from two wild pears that are native to Europe and western Asia. They are ancestors of the more than 3,000 different varieties of pears we have today.
The cultivated plum is a domestication of the wild plum known to the Romans in the time of Cato. Plums originated near the Caspian Sea in western Asia. It was there that people first began to preserve them by drying them to make prunes. Prunes, however, didn’t arrive in America until 1856.
Sun-dried fruits have been known from at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, and this method of preserving fruit is still popular. It creates raisins from grapes and produces many other delectable items.
Spanish missionaries first planted the grapevines and fruit trees that have made California the world’s most prolific producer of dried fruits. They are also responsible for those beautiful orange and lemon groves that cover miles of terrain.
Oranges, the expensive holiday treats of the 19th century, are now so ho-hum commonplaces as to be taken for granted. They are indigenous to India and China. They reached Europe and, in time, America, by way of Persia.
Even though ancient physicians knew nothing about vitamins, they were really on the right track when they prescribed citrus fruits for many ailments.
How wonderful is the array of summer and spring fruits available to us now, and how very delectable are the strawberries, which are among the first beautiful fruits of the seasons.
Many interesting small fruits are native to different sections of the United States. Most can be grown in home gardens.
They include buffaloberry, lingonberry, Oregon grape, salal, bearberry, silverberry, twinberry and sea grapes. Combining these native wild fruits with cultivated varieties can give you some enjoyable eating experiences during the spring and coming summer, as well as providing main ingredients for pastries, preserves, juices and wines.
Caneberries, sometimes called brambles, produce delicious and delicate fruits. So do raspberries, which come in red, yellow, purple and black as dewberries or blackberries.
All of these are species and hybrids of the genus Rubus. Red and black raspberries are well known, but the purple ones, a combination of the red and black, are quite rare. But they all taste just the same.
Blackberries and dewberries are essentially the same fruit, which have been hybridized to produce boysenberries, youngberries and marionberries. But whatever name is used for them, they all make a delicious addition to the garden and to our spring and summer meals.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.