The Strawberry (genus Fragaria) is one of more than 20 species of flowering plants in the rose family (Rosaceae) and their edible fruit.
According to its wikipedia entry, the ‘garden strawberry’ is a widely grown hybrid species of the genus Fragaria, collectively known as strawberries, which are cultivated worldwide for their fruit. The fruit is widely appreciated for its characteristic aroma, bright red color, juicy texture, and sweetness.
The garden strawberry was first bred in Brittany, in northern France, in the 1750s ‘by way of a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis, which was brought from Chile by Amédée-François Frézier in 1714. Cultivars of Fragaria × ananassa have replaced, in commercial production, by the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the early 17th century.
The strawberry is not actually (from a botanical point of view) a berry at all! Technically, it is an ‘aggregate accessory fruit’, meaning that the fleshy part is derived not from the plant’s ovaries but from the receptacle that holds the ovaries. Each apparent “seed” (achene) on the outside of the fruit is actually one of the ovaries of the flower, with a seed inside it.
We still think strawberry has a nice ring to it – certainly better than straw-aggregate-accessory-fruit!
The history of strawberries in Australia
Strawberries were first commercially grown in Victoria’s Yarra Valley during the 1950’s. Strawberry production started in this region as migrant families begun to settle on the outskirts of Melbourne, particularly in those areas with rich fertile soils.
Today there are close to 100 strawberry farms within Victoria, and they spread from Portland in the south west to Wodonga in the north east. However the majority of farms, 75 percent, are still located within the Yarra Valley, a short 45 minutes from Melbourne’s CBD.
Back in the 1950’s strawberries were only distributed through the Melbourne market, that was until Gordon Chapman took the first consignment of strawberries to the Sydney market on the back of a basic flat-tray tuck in the 1960’s.
Times have changed and now strawberries are distributed to markets throughout Australia’s eastern seaboard and exported throughout Asia. But unlike in the 1960’s strawberries are now transported in refrigerated trucks so they reach consumers in perfect condition.
Through the production of different varieties the Victorian strawberry industry is able to supply fruit to the Australia market for 8 months of the year beginning in October.
Strawberries are propagated via ‘runners’
Strawberry runners (plants) are grown in regions such as Toolangi (Vic), Stanthorpe (Qld) and Tasmania, where there is adequate chill to induce flowering, once planted. The Queensland Strawberry Runner Accreditation Scheme and the Victorian Certified Runner Scheme are in place to ensure mother-stock is free of viruses and pests, and that runners meet a specified quality standard.
Varieties grown in Australia are mostly introduced, and are predominantly sourced from the US (University of California), but also from Israel and Japan. Varieties bred from the Australian Strawberry Breeding Program are increasing in industry acceptance, with runners of varieties from the Queensland and Victorian Departments of Primary Industries breeding programs approaching 10% of the total market (Horticulture Australia estimates, 2003).
The industry is beginning to experiment with the economics and practicalities of plug plant production through the culturing of runner tips – a practice that is common in Europe. This planting technique is likely to affect early plant vigour and may become another tool to manipulate earliness of crop, further blurring the traditional production seasons between the different climatic regions.
Strawberry yields have increased as a result of research worldwide into plant health and the selection of improved varieties. Irrigation and fertigation technology has developed to enable precise delivery. The use of integrated pest management is becoming more common, although major challenges remain, both with existing pests and potential pests capable of entering Australia in the future. Picking labour cost remains as a major issue, as mechanical harvesting is not an option for strawberry fruit.
Many predict that there will be a “marketing push” towards sustainable and low-chemical production systems in the future. Whilst some technological advances have minimised the impact of strawberry production on the environment, there is scope to develop these further. Environmental Management Systems provide potential market barriers as well as opportunities for strawberry trade in the future. There is also a need to better understand maintenance of soil health and fertility, including replant problems and long term structural or nutrient decline. External environmental issues such as water quality (e.g. salinity) and climate change may also impact on strawberry production in the medium to long term.
Soils used for strawberry production are mostly fumigated and covered with plastic prior to planting to control soil micro-organisms. Until recently, the universal fumigant was Methyl Bromide (MB), but international restrictions have been placed on MB usage since it was agreed that this ozone-depleting gas would be phased out by 2005 under the Montreal Protocol. One of the challenges ahead for the industry will be the maintenance of production levels using alternative fumigants and soil treatments and/or integrated soil pest and disease management techniques.
Most Australian strawberries are currently grown in open fields, with only a small proportion grown in glasshouses or hydroponically. The most common form of protected cropping (typical in Western Australia) is strawberries grown under clear plastic tunnels, suspended less than half a metre above the ground.