(Fragaria x ananassa), includes WILD STRAWBERRY

Fragaria vesca, which is often confused with the Barren Strawberry, which is no relation, and belongs to an entirely different genus). Nobody seems to agree about how strawberry got its name. Of course, we put straw around the plants to protect the fruit, but the name was streawberige in OE times. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology admits it does not know the derivation. Anyway, the fruit has always been much appreciated; to quote Aubrey -"strawberries have a most delicious taste, and are so innocent that a woman in childbed, or one in a feaver, may safely eate them". But to show that nothing can unequivocally be good, he goes on, "but I have heard Sir Christopher Wren affirm, that if one that has a wound in his head eates them, they are mortall".

The commendations are echoed in the symbolism that has attached itself to strawberries. They were used a great deal in pictures representing the garden of Heaven, and in the "enclosed garden" of the Virgin Mary. They are shown with fruit and flowers together, and in this way represent the good works of the righteous. It is the emblem of "the righteous men whose fruits are good works", or the symbol of "perfect righteousness" (Haig), and, apparently, of foresight (Leyel. 1937). But "righteousness" seems the more important; as such it was used chiefly in early Italian paintings of the Adoration, where the infant Christ is laid upon the grass. In these Italian paintings, the symbolical strawberry is usally accompanied by the violet, as if to point out that the truly fruitful soul is always humble (Haig).

It is said that strawberries grow best when planted near nettles (Notes and Queries. 4th series. vol 19; 1872), and gardeners say also that BORAGE is a good companion plant for strawberries (Boland & Boland).

Cornish girls believed that their complexion could be improved if they rubbed their skin with wild strawberry leaves. Actually, the belief is widespread -see, for instance, this verse of a version of "Dabbling in the Dew":

Pray whither so trippingly, pretty fair maid,

With your face rosy-white and your soft yellow hair?

Sweet sir, to the well in the summer-wood shade

For strawberry leaves make the young maiden fair

There may have been some reasonably sound reason for this; the leaves are obviously astringent, as indeed are many of the Rosaceae, of which the strawberry is a member. Hill described the infusion of the fresh leaves as a "good liquor to wash a sore mouth or throat". It was also said to keep tartar off the teeth (Fairweather). But we find the fruits themselves connected with receipts for the complexion. "The ripe strawberries quench thirst, and take away, if they be often used, the rednesse and heate of the face" (Gerard). Other prescriptions probably refer to the leaves, though it is by no means clear, as there is no separate word for plant and fruit, as there is for blackberry, for instance, when bramble is reserved for the stems and leaves, while the berry name can only mean the fruit. What are we to make of this receipt, ascribed by Lupton to Conradus Gesnerus? "Many have been helped that have had foul and leprous faces, only by washing the same with distilled water of strawberries; the strawberries first put into a close glass, and so purified in horse dung"!

But strawberries were not always viewed with unmitigated delight; the colour of the fruit seems to be the reason. Some birthmarks are known as "strawberry" marks, and East Anglian superstition tells that they were caused by the mother's eating too much of the fruit during her pregnancy (Porter. 1974). The dislike of the colour is found in Italy, too. No child would be given red fruits like strawberries to eat, or red shoes to wear. The effect of the colour on a small child would be to cause in later life some antisocial behaviour like bad temper or even uncontrollable rage (Camp).

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