Posted on Mon, June 29, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
5 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Farms and Farming,
By David Buchanan, Slow Food Portland, ME
Last week I picked a perfectly ripe strawberry in the front yard, brought it into the kitchen and laid it on the table. Didnt seem right to eat it, not yet. After an unsuccessful attempt to take close-up photographs without a tripod, I cut it in two and laid it on a plate. Carried it around for a while. Nice looking berry.
This is a Marshall, a variety described by Slow Food USA and the RAFT alliance in 2004 as one of the top ten endangered foods in the country. According to the first RAFT publication, it was once known as the finest eating strawberry in America: exceedingly handsome, splendidly flavored, pleasantly sprightly, aromatic and juicy. Who could resist that? I had to taste one.
But how do you find and grow a nearly extinct berry? According to RAFT, the only hint of this remarkable strawberry exists at the USDAs Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon in the form of a single clone. No one carries it commercially. In fact the only other known source is the Bainbridge Island Historical Society in Washington State, and its plants havent been verified through genetic testing.
Two years ago in January I called Kim Hummer, a USDA researcher in Corvallis, who agreed to send two plants. They arrived in June 2007, wrapped in a plastic bag in a USPS box: two delicate runners, healthy but small, one with new roots less than an inch long. I set them in a prominent place in my home garden. They took hold vigorously and sent out runners in all directions by last fall, nearly fifty new plants.
Last summer the larger of the plants set two berries, but the first disappeared the moment it ripened. Squirrels? The postman? The other berry could have used another day to ripen fully, though I wasnt about to wait a year to have a taste. I brushed off the dirt and ate it. It was good, sweet and juicy, if not exactly a representative sample.
This year the strawberries are growing in three locations, for security and to evaluate different soil conditions. The original plants are now a foot tall, healthy and vigorous, covered with fruit and sending out multiple runners.
What does a nearly extinct strawberry taste like? The Small Fruits of New York, published in 1925, says Marshalls require heavy, rich soil, and dont perform as well in unfavorable conditions. The first berries this season didnt develop a lot of flavor, but I was harvesting early to stay ahead of the snails and slugs. Once the plants were protected the berries ripened fully and their flavors developed.
This week despite cold, wet weather the fruit has been uniformly sweet and delicious, with the complex taste Id hoped for. It will be interesting to follow its taste over the course of the season as the weather warms up and the sun returns. It may take a couple more years to really get to know this fruit.
Despite its extensive history in the Pacific Northwest, Marshall is a Massachusetts berry that dates back to 1890. This is a reintroduction to New England after a long hiatus. If all goes well, by next year Ill have hundreds of plants in the field, and even some to distribute. It feels like a kind of homecoming.
David Buchanan helped found and then led the Portland, Maine chapter of Slow Food USA for three years. In addition to working with Turkey Hill Farm in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, David consults on sustainable landscape design.