A Sweet Welcome to Strawberry Season

Rich with symbolism—and irresistible fragrance—strawberries are at their best now, so make the most of them

A Sweet Welcome to Strawberry Season
Look for firm fruits that are uniformly red from the tip of the berry to its fringed green stem, and have a sweet, rich aroma. (Jennifer McGruther)

Doubtlessly, you know that summer begins on June 21. It’s the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, after all. But the beginning of summer hasn’t always been so cut and dry. Rather, according to the old European folk calendar, it begins a full six weeks earlier on May 1.

The days are warmer, the sun shines for just a bit longer, and the first of summer’s harvest arrives, usually in the form of plump red strawberries. These little berries played an integral role in May festivities that welcomed summer. You’d find bowls filled with fresh cream and strawberries, infused wines, and so much more.

As the first fruit to arrive at the market, the berries are intricately linked to folklore. More than a fruit, they symbolized summer itself and all the promise it holds. They’re a uniquely lucky berry, and folkloric tradition links the fruit to love and fertility.

Lucky Charms

In Bavaria, dairymen would tie little baskets of the berries to the horns of their cows as an offering for the elves. The elves, being particularly fond of the berry, would bless the farm with an abundance of healthy calves and plenty of cream in return.
Don’t worry if you haven’t any cows to decorate; you can still earn a bit of luck by wearing strawberry leaves or flowers yourself, too. It’s an ancient talisman that promises good luck—or so the old tales promise.

Love Potions and Newlyweds

While strawberries may be a lucky fruit, it’s their link to love that’s perhaps their strongest. Strawberries are members of the rose family, and like roses, they’re considered love charms.

In Old Norse mythology, the strawberry was a sacred food of Freya, the goddess of love and motherhood. She’d hold the spirits of children who died in infancy within the fruit, so that they could ascend to heaven.

The berry isn’t just a symbol of maternal love, but of romantic love, too. They’re also representative of the Roman love goddess Venus. This promise of love runs deep, and you’ll find it blooming in folkloric traditions throughout the Old World.

Sharing a double strawberry with someone you fancy, for instance, might just make them fall in love with you. In Germany, they prepare May wine, which tradition holds is a sort of love potion.  To make it, you infuse white wine with strawberries and sweet woodruff, an herb that smells vaguely of vanilla and toasted nuts. Whether you’re planning to entrance a lover or not, the herb-forward, fruit-infused drink is a delight to make. An old French tradition, meanwhile, helps to ignite the love of newlyweds by serving them a delicate soup made with sweetened crème fraîche, strawberries, and borage flowers.

A Symbol of Purity

In the Medieval era, strawberries held a measure of religious significance as well. As the fruit contains neither pit nor peel, it was considered a symbol of perfection. Its soft white flower symbolized the purity of the Virgin Mary, while its red fruit represented Christ’s blood, and its three-partitioned leaf represented the Holy Trinity.
You can still see these depictions present in many extant artworks, such as carved altars, illuminated manuscripts, or even tapestries. Boticelli’s "The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christchild" depicts the Virgin Mary gazing sweetly at her baby in a garden of roses and strawberries.

How to Buy the Best Strawberries

Whether you’re planning to concoct a love potion or just want to make a really lovely strawberry tart, there are a few things you should look out for when you shop for these fruits. While supermarkets stock strawberries year-round, their season typically begins in May and peaks in June around midsummer.

Farmers markets and U-pick farms are your best bet for finding ripe, fragrant berries. Many small farmers who focus on local markets grow heirloom varieties. These varieties tend to be more flavorful than those you’ll find in the grocery store, which are bred less for flavor and more for their ability to withstand extensive handling, transportation, and lengthy storage.

Look for firm fruits that are uniformly red from the tip of the berry to its fringed green stem. Ripe berries should also smell sweet with a rich, berry-like aroma. They should be free from any soft spots, and if you’re picking them yourself, head out to the garden or U-pick farm early in the day, as the mid-day heat will wilt them in your basket if you’re not careful.

The whole strawberry plant is edible, but the fruit is certainly the prize. Serve them fresh and ripe, baked into muffins, or cooked into sauces and jams to preserve them for the wintertime. You can dry strawberry leaves and use them as tea, as they’re rich in vitamin K, carotenes, and minerals, and instead of tossing the strawberry tops into the trash, consider placing them in a jar of apple cider vinegar. In about a week’s time, you’ll have a strawberry-infused vinegar that’s perfect for dressing summer salads.

Jennifer McGruther, NTP, is a nutritional therapy practitioner, herbalist, and the author of three cookbooks, including “Vibrant Botanicals.” She’s also the creator of NourishedKitchen.com, a website that celebrates traditional foodways, herbal remedies, and fermentation. She teaches workshops on natural foods and herbalism, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.