Plant City – An ancient delight, the strawberry owns a pedigree traceable to Romans and Greeks. It is famous in literature: Shakespeare wrote of this "maiden with runners."
As a medical wonder, its properties were described in the 1526 Grete Herbal, printed in England: "It groweth in woodes and grenes, and shadowy places... strawberyes eaten helpeth choleric persones, comforteth the stomake and quencheth thirst."
Four years after the Grete Herbal’s publication, England’s famous King Henry VIII bought a basket of strawberries for 10 shillings, according to royal records.
But this succulent princess of fruit did not win true fame until it landed in Plant City and became the focus of one of the nation’s premier community festivals.
The Florida Strawberry Festival is a Plant City tradition stretching back more than 80 years. As always, it bursts with midway hilarity, on-stage entertainment (much of it free), livestock and, of course, plenty of ways to eat strawberries. There is even a footrace for those who haven’t gotten carried away with too much food.
Ah, eating. Besides the ever-present fragaria – as the Latin denotes it – hearty gourmands can dive into such gustatory delights as deep-fried mashed potatoes, waffles on a stick rolled in nuts and topped with whipped cream, and pot roast sundaes – a mashed potato base supporting the roast and gravy, all topped with a cherry tomato. That’s for starters.
Certainly don’t forget strawberry shortcake, a dish historians say first was concocted by American Indians.
Plant City held its first festival in 1930. The local Lions Club had an idea that the strawberry, a major part of community agriculture, should be celebrated in a big way. In 1948, American Legion Post 26 brought back the festival after a six-year absence because of World War II.
Now the festival is considered one of the top 40 fairs in North America. Last year, about 524,000 attended, said KeeLee Tomlinson, festival spokeswoman.
"They literally come from all over the world – and they come every year," she said.
Strawberries are a good reason for celebrating in Plant City, which is in Hillsborough County. More than 10,000 acres of strawberries are planted annually on about 2,800 Hillsborough farms.
But why aren’t they called redberries for their color, or heartberries for their shape, or groundberries for their choice of environment?
The strawberry’s name may have come from any of several sources, say the word experts. In English, it was known through the centuries as streowberige, strea berige, streowberge, streaw berian, streberi lef, strebere wyse and, finally, by its current name.
The Anglo-Saxon word streow meant hay, and according to one theory, the Anglo-Saxons had called the strawberry the "hayberry" because it ripened at the time hay was mown. But the preferred explanation is that the Anglo-Saxons came up with the name "strawberry" because the plant’s runners strew – or stray – from the main plant to find growing space.
The naming matter was settled by the mid-16th century, it seems.
In his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, published in 1557, Thomas Tusser wrote these lines:
"Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got;
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good."
"Excellent good" is the operative phrase here.
As they say about the festival in Plant City: "It doesn’t get any sweeter."