Are there any heirloom strawberries? Sure, you may find old varieties being grown at historic garden institutions throughout the country. But they may be hard to obtain through the retail market.
The more pressing question is whether a contemporary Heirloom Orchardist would really want to grow an old strawberry variety. The old ones are of questionable quality by today’s standards. Although it’s generally agreed that the strawberry is one of the most important New-World small fruits, the nice, plump, fragrant and juicy berries that signal summer to all of us, haven’t been around for very long
In the beginning, a strawberry was either the tiny, poorly bearing (but tasty) meadow strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) from North America, or the large tasteless berry (Fragaria chiloensis) from the pacific coast of South America. These two species crossed (either deliberately, or by chance), and the offspring provided the parentage to the cultivated berry we know today. But it wasn’t until the famous 19th century plant breeder, Charles Hovey, developed a couple distinctive varieties in the 1830’s. One of these, "The Hovey" (or “Hovey’s Seedling” ), stuck. And it ushered in the start of the strawberry industry.
But, "The Hovey" had its limitations. Here’s a passage I’ve found in my tattered issue of the New England Farmer and Boston Rambler, dated June 7, 1851:
And new varieties have been “claiming trial” ever since. If you are interested in the novelty of growing old heirloom varieties, by all means reach into your network of heirloom enthusiasts, and have someone send you a runner from one of the old varieties. But this Heirloom Orchardist just doesn’t put heirloom strawberries into the same category as other heirloom fruit. They were frustrating to grow, and not as reliably tasty as our contemporary ones. Try these instead:
This is a cold-hardy, productive, everbearing strawberry. It was developed by the US Department of Agriculture, and released in 1973. It is extremely winter hardy. It even seems to survive in Alaska, but this is not recommended since Alaska’s long days inhibit fruit production. When it was released, the USDA issued this statement:
"Fruit of Fort Laramie is large in size, bright scarlet-red in color, and firm fleshed in areas with cool nights. Fruit may become somewhat soft in areas with warm nights or if overripe. Yield is very high. Berries are attractive, being round-conic in shape. Interior color is pink to scarlet. Flavor is characteristically strawberry, aromatic, sweet and pleasant. Skin is medium to firm with yellow seed set at the surface level."
Quinault is another everbearing variety, developed by Washington State University. This strawberry can be grown as far north as Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. It’s so eager to set berries, that it’ll produce them on unrooted runners. This Heirloom Orchardist has found it will even do well in containers. It’s self pollinating, and the fruit can be ready to eat in just 4 to 5 weeks after planting. Large berries. Even Charles Hovey would have been impressed.