In Florida, Strawberries Are Still a Work in Progress
Thanks to crossbreeding, the future of strawberries is looking sweeter than ever.
The Florida Strawberry Festival started last week—on National Strawberry Day, of course—and runs through this Sunday. The annual event promises everything from strawberry-themed clothing and gifts, photo ops with the festival's mascots, Mr. and Mrs. Berry, and an eating contest to see if any attendee can finish a four-pound strawberry shortcake in under 10 minutes.
But the real star of the event is the fruit itself, and the featured varieties were grown at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) in nearby Wimauma. On that campus and on the 500 acres of fields that surround it, researchers are working to develop strawberries that have a longer growing season, that are more resistant to disease, and that still have the right amount of sweetness.
"These varieties are constantly getting better,” Vance Whitaker, an associate professor of horticultural sciences and strawberry breeder at GCREC said. “They’re tasting better. So, they fill those needs. They’re lasting longer in the refrigerator, and they’re more consistently available throughout the season.”
The latest strawberry varieties that Whitaker has worked on are called Florida Brilliance and Sweet Sensation. The former is glossy in appearance and juicy on the tongue, while the latter is a more muted color but—as its name suggests—is known for its sweetness. (According to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, roughly half of the state's strawberry acreage is being used to grow Florida Brilliance this year.)
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the University of Florida has developed and patented 15 strawberry varieties, starting with the Florida Ninety which was released in 1952, and the Sweet Charlie, which was "bigger and sweeter" and was Florida's main strawberry for most of the 1990s. Florida Brilliance had its own debut in 2017, but Whitaker has teased a new as-yet-unnamed variety that has an "almost honey flavor" and could be available within the next couple of years.
"It’s my job to make strawberries better,” Whitaker told the Times. “I’m really proud that my work is helping improve farmers’ livelihood, and that I’m working on something that’s good for people. Blueberries get all the press as a health food, but strawberries are just packed with vitamin C and fiber and antioxidants and all those cool compounds.”
He also stressed that new varieties of strawberries are not genetically modified, but are developed through crossbreeding between existing species. This careful, lab-controlled pollen exchange is similar to the work that horticulturists have done to create new apple varieties, like the recently developed Cosmic Crisp. (Interestingly, the Times notes that one of Whitaker's Ph.D program advisors was the University of Minnesota apple breeder who co-created the Honeycrisp apple, a fruit that one organization included on its list of the top 25 inventions of the 2000s.)
In the meantime, Florida Brilliance and Sweet Sensation—which were both released within the past seven years—have been bred to appeal to growers, to retailers, and to consumers. And they might not make it any easier to finish the Strawberry Festival's four-pound shortcake, but they will make it taste pretty darn good.