When James Mooney, who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology in the late 1800’s, lived with the Cherokee, he recorded many of their myths and legends. I love the story of the origin of strawberries because it presents the Cherokee version of Adam and Eve and gives us insight into the Cherokee’s thoughts on the power of love.
Here is the Mooney version: “When the first man was created and a mate was given to him, they lived together very happily for a time, but then began to quarrel, until at last the woman left her husband and started off toward Nûñâgûñ’yï, the Sun land, in the east. The man followed alone and grieving, but the woman kept on steadily ahead and never looked behind, until Une’`länûñ’hï, the great Apportioner (the Sun), took pity on him and asked him if he was still angry with his wife. He said he was not, and Une’`länûñ’hï then asked him if he would like to have her back again, to which he eagerly answered yes.
“So Une’`länûñ’hï caused a patch of the finest ripe huckleberries to spring up along the path in front of the woman, but she passed by without paying any attention to them. Farther on he put a clump of blackberries, but these also she refused to notice. Other fruits, one, two, and three, and then some trees covered with beautiful red service berries, were placed beside the path to tempt her, but she still went on until suddenly she saw in front a patch of large ripe strawberries, the first ever known. She stooped to gather a few to eat, and as she picked them she chanced to turn her face to the west, and at once the memory of her husband came back to her and she found herself unable to go on. She sat down, but the longer she waited the stronger became her desire, for her husband, and at last she gathered a bunch of the finest berries and started back along the path to give them to him. He met her kindly and they went home together.”
It is not hard for us to appreciate the power of the luscious strawberry as a love potion. But, the strawberry we are familiar with today is a cultivated hybrid. The strawberry in the Cherokee story was a wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, which is native to eastern North America.
But a variety of the strawberry was also native to Europe. There is a Greek fable about the much smaller, very sweet wild strawberry. In the fable, the Goddess Aphrodite fell in love with the mortal, but very handsome Adonis. When he was killed, she cried with such passion that her tears fell to the ground as red hearts, or strawberries. In the fable, the drops of Adonis’ blood that fell to the ground became the origin of roses. Ironically, the strawberry and rose are from the same family.
Today’s garden strawberry was first bred in Brittany, France, in the 1750’s and is a cross between the Fragaria virginiana from easthern North America and the Fragaria chiloensis which was brought to Europe from Chile in 1714. When the Chilean fruit was first brought to Europe, they grew very well but produced no fruit. Finally, in 1766, they realized that the plant was a female-only plant and had to be pollinated to produce fruit. This is when the Europeans became aware that plants had the ability to produce male-only and female-only flowers.
In ancient times, the strawberry, its leaves and roots were considered a medicinal plant that alleviated symptoms of melancholy, fainting, all inflammations, fevers, throat infections, kidney stones, halitosis, attacks of gout, and diseases of the blood, liver and spleen. It was considered an aphrodisiac and love potion. And it is the rare fruit whose seeds are on the outside, not inside the fruit.
When the colonists first came into contact with the Cherokee, they learned the Cherokee recipe for adding strawberries to bread or cake. A modification of the original recipe became the Strawberry Shortcake of today.
The English writer, Dr. William Butler probably said it best, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”