Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Jane Austen thought strawberries were poisonous

I was once asked how I knew so much about strawberries (this was after giving a brief elucidation on their origins and significance). I answered that I was quite avidly interested in Jane Austen. The person I was speaking to looked quite confused and actually said, "what do strawberries have to do with Jane Austen?"

I was stunned. What have they to do with Jane Austen? What has tea to do with China?

I must tell you that I learned everything I know about strawberries from a lecture at the Edmonton Library held by the Jane Austen Society - the same lady in fact from whom I learned about renting pineapples. I don't remember every detail, so if I miss anything, feel free to fill in the blanks in the comments section.

Strawberries are one of the most international plants. I do not say fruits, or berries, because they are neither. They are the inside part of a flower. They seem to have evolved independently on both sides of the Atlantic, and grow in almost every climate.

At some point, I think it might have been the 1700s, the English sent a spy to South America to spy on some colonies there under the very clever disguise of being a botanist. In keeping with his disguise, he brought back some strawberry plants that he found growing on the beach. However, he only brought back the ones with strawberries growing on them, assuming the others were no good. He did not realize there are male and female plants. So the ones he carefully brought to England did not get fertilized and stopped producing - that is until they were planted near some other strawberry plants of different varieties. One such variety had the same number of chromosomes and the two cross-pollinated, producing a whole new breed of strawberry.
Strawberries are called that because they grow in the late summer, and to keep them alive and producing into the cooler fall months, you can pack them with straw for insulation. This was common practice, and gave rise to their name. (I have heard competing theories, but I am going with this one. Please feel free to convince me of others in the comments section.)

In Jane Austen's time, England was coming out of a mini ice age. As the weather warmed, more produce became readily available, and strawberries were a part of that. You will recall the strawberry-picking day in Emma and Mrs. Elton's pontification on the virtues of the various types of strawberry available at the time. They would have made them into jams and pies and other treats, but they would not have eaten them as they picked them, because they believed all raw fruits and vegetables to be poisonous.

Now, it is my experience that often misconceptions like this do have their roots in something true, and since I don't know precisely what they used for fertilizers or pesticides in those days, perhaps it was unsafe to eat them without cooking them.This may be why English cooks are so renowned for boiling their vegetables to death.

I also learned at this lecture that strawberries are a symbol of humility, because they bow themselves to the ground. So, if you see old paintings of people surrounded by strawberry plants, you know that this is meant to show the humility of the subject. I believe the Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in this way.

This is all I remember from the talk, but I know there was much more. If you know anything else interesting about strawberries, please share. I will only add that I love strawberries. They look so pretty, and when you cut them in half, they look like a heart. How charming.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice.

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