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Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods
EditEd by

Gary Paul Nabhan

Deborah Madison

Marshall Strawberry
Once declared the finest eating strawberry in America, the finicky yet flavorful Marshall strawberry has almost vanished from our farms and our palates. According to the venerable American agricultural encyclopedia The Small Fruits of New York, the Marshall strawberry was the standard of excellence for the entire northern strawberry industry. With rich, dark red flesh to its very center, the Marshall strawberry is also described as exceedingly handsome, splendidly flavored, aromatic, and juicy—words beyond the reaches of imagination when biting into the strawberries found on most contemporary grocery shelves. In this era of food homogenization, the unique flavors of our heritage crops are at risk. The remarkable texture and taste of the Marshall strawberry are on the verge of disappearing as its important historical role fades from the history books and our heirloom seed catalogs. A chance seedling, the Marshall strawberry was discovered by Marshall F. Ewell of Massachusetts in 1890 and introduced to the public in 1893. The Marshall took root in Salmon Nation; until the 1960s this strawberry was the backbone of the Northwestern berry industry. The Marshall thrived particularly on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, becoming the central crop there during the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, it is on Bainbridge Island that the Marshall strawberry has its greatest champions, in both historical preservation and its current revival. Through the diligence of Jerry Elfendahl, a seventh-generation islander, the Bainbridge Island Historical Society has an incredible collection of writings, photos, and histories of the island and its rich Marshall strawberry industry. Beginning in 1908, Japanese strawberry farmers began to plant hundreds of acres of strawberries on the island; the soil and the weather are perfect for producing delectable berries. Berry production on the island peaked prior to World War II, when 500 fifty-five-gallon barrels were shipped off the island per day. Filipino settlers looked after the farms during the Japanese internment during World War II, and Native Americans from British Columbia would come to work during harvest season. This help, along with the work of the islanders, was essential: At just two weeks, the Marshall season isn’t much longer than a blink of an eye. In the aftermath of World War II, berries were debilitated by crop diseases inadvertently imported from other countries. The delicate Marshall, requiring exacting climatic and soil conditions, proved to be extremely susceptible to these introduced viruses. It was phased out of production in the 1960s, occupying only 4,000 acres of Oregon and Washington’s strawberry market. As we begin the twenty-first century, the essential flavor of strawberries has been all but eliminated in industrial, chemically intensive agricultural systems. Now, even fruit aficionados such as David Karp—the self-styled “fruit detective” who writes for the New York Times and Gourmet magazine—struggle to find any producers willing to maintain the exquisite Marshall strawberry. But thanks to the Bainbridge Island Historical Society’s Marshall Strawberry Project, the Marshall is being revived on the same land that nurtured these plants fifty years ago. A handful of oldtimers on the island have continued to grow the Marshall strawberry in their home gardens; from these strawberry plants a small plot was started on the grounds of the historical society to preserve

the history of Bainbridge Island and also serve as a fund-raiser for the small museum. The strawberry plants have proven to be immensely popular, and the revival of this project has moved beyond the grounds of the historical society to support a budding food and farming movement on the island. Carol McCarthy, a volunteer with the historical society, manages the Marshall Strawberry Project, caring for the plants on-site and offering starter plants to schools and community groups. In particular, she has worked closely with the Trust for Working Landscapes and Global Source, local community groups that are revitalizing agriculture on the island and nurturing its connection with education. Participants at Voyager Montessori School, for example, restored a portion of the school’s property back to its historical use as a Marshall strawberry farm from plants grown at the historical society. These stewards on Bainbridge Island are bringing this remarkable strawberry out of the history books and back to our tables.

Reproduced from U.P. Hedrick, The Small Fruits of New York (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Co., 1925).

Further Readings
Darrow, George McMillan. The Strawberry: History, Breeding, and Physiology. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Hedrick, U. P. The Small Fruits of New York. Albany, New York: J. B. Lyon Company, 1925.

Salmon Nation /