By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
The Naragansett Native American word for strawberry—wuttahimneash—translates to heart-seed berry. The scientific name is Fragaria ananassa, which refers to its sweet fragrance. The strawberry we know and love today is a cultivated plant (in the rose family) that can be traced back to 18th century Europe. It was a hybrid of the North American and a Chilean varieties and is the precursor of all cultivated strawberries today. As the first fruit to ripen in the spring, they are not technically “berries”, but rather referred to as “accessory” fruits. Berries have their seeds within the skin wall, but strawberries have their seeds on the exterior membrane. The strawberry does not develop from the plant’s ovary, but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries. Each seed is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside of it and there are an average of 200 seeds on each berry. Strawberries can be grown from seed, but it’s much more successful to propagate by runners, which grow off the mother plant. Strawberries are perennials and can produce for up to five years.
There are three types of flowering habits: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. This refers to the time period in which the plant produces flowers and fruits and are day length driven. Day-neutral is a type that produces continuously from spring through fall. On average it produces smaller amounts at a time, but over a longer period. The latter produce the bulk of their fruits in one season.
Rich in antioxidants, high in water content, and low in carbs, strawberries have a low glycemic index, so they are considered safe for people with diabetes. They are also high in fiber, which helps feed the friendly bacteria in your gut and improve digestive health. Strawberries also contain high amounts of beneficial plant compounds such as pelargonidin (which gives strawberries their red color), procyanidins, ellagic acid, and ellagitannins (both of which have been proven to capture free radicals).
Often partnered with strawberries is rhubarb. Technically a vegetable, rhubarb (or the great yellow as it is known in China due to the size and color of its roots) appears in late spring along with strawberries. Rhubarb is a cultivated plant in the polygonaceae family. It’s herbaceous (meaning it has fleshy stems that die back to the ground each winter) and perennial growing from thick rhizomes. The roots were historically used in medicine and it wasn’t until much later that the fleshy leaf stalks were eaten. The large, triangular leaves are very high in oxalic acid, making them inedible.
The color of rhubarbs stalks differ according to the variety as well as how it was grown. The cherry red stalks you see in the grocery stores typically come from hot houses, but the light pink or green varieties are usually locally grown. Like strawberries, the red color comes from anthocyanins, a naturally occurring antioxidant which makes rhubarb a super healthy food. Rhubarb is also high in fiber and potassium.
Originally from China, rhubarb made its way to Greece and then it was eventually imported along the Silk Road—reaching Europe in the 14th century. It was a costly product given the expense of transportation in medieval Europe. Because of the high prices and increasing demand for its medicinal roots, new species were developed in England. Suddenly, an abundance of plants and the decreasing cost of sugar in the 18th century led to the discovery of the palatability of the fleshy stalks making the usage of rhubarb as food a recent innovation.
What to do with this delicious bounty?
Easy and Quick Strawberry Jam
1 quart hulled strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp. lemon juice
In a food processor, coarsely chop strawberries. Transfer to a large skillet, stir in sugar and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until jam begins to thicken and bubble, approximately 10 minutes. Turn off heat and spoon into two jars and cover tightly. Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate. Once open, consume within two weeks.
Mom’s Rhubarb Bread
Oven: 350 degrees
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. melted butter
Blend together in a small bowl and set aside.
In medium bowl, combine:
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups diced rhubarb (about five stalks)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or pecans)
In a large bowl:
2/3 cups your favorite vegetable oil
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Batter: combine sugar, oil and eggs. Beat until light, blend in milk and vanilla. Slowly add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients a little at a time, stirring just enough until all ingredients are blended. Do not over stir.
Pour equal amounts of batter into two lightly greased loaf pans, drizzle the topping over each loaf.
Bake at least 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean
Let cool for 15 minutes before tipping out of the loaf pans onto cooling racks.
*The first step in this recipe is best started the day before
4 cups diced rhubarb
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups ice
Sprig of fresh mint
*2/3 cup tequila (optional)
Chop approximately three large stalks of rhubarb into 1-inch cubes. Place in a bowl and put in your freezer approximately four hours, or overnight. Once rhubarb is frozen solid, remove from the freezer and put in a colander over a bowl. Let it defrost. This will release all the juicy goodness from the rhubarb without having to cook it. Press out all the liquid and transfer to a pitcher or large quart jar. Add sugar, water and mix. Add tequila once the sugar is dissolved.
Depending on how you like your margarita (with or without tequila), you can pour the sweetened rhubarb juice and ice into a blender and blend just a few seconds. Pour out into four cute glasses, decorate with the mint, toss in a tiny umbrella, and sit back and sip the tastes of spring.
Illustration by Kevin Kobasic