Saving the Marshall Strawberry
Discovered by Marshall F. Ewell in 1890 just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, the strawberry that bears his name is a deeply red, intensely flavorful fruit legendary gourmand James Beard called “the most delicious strawberry ever grown.”
Entering the market in 1893, the Marshall strawberry achieved some popularity throughout New England, but soon found its way to the Pacific Northwest, where a milder climate favored the somewhat delicate berry. The flavorful Marshall found a place in the growing culture due to its exquisite flavor and suitability for freezing, a practice that developed in the early to mid-1900s.
Despite its superior flavor, growers ultimately favored hardier, more productive varieties. In the 1960s a widespread virus overtook the already dwindling plant population and the Marshall strawberry very nearly became extinct. In 2004, RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) Alliance declared the Marshall strawberry one of the ten most endangered foods in the country. A strain was preserved at the USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis Oregon, but its future looked bleak. Enter Leah Gauthier.
Gauthier is an intermedia and relational artist living in Bloomington, Indiana, exploring growing, cooking and food preservation in her work. In 2007, while attending graduate school in Boston, she requested some runners of the endangered Marshall from the research scientists in Corvallis. They were pleased to share a few runners with Gauthier to be grown for non-research purposes and her journey began. From those first runners, three plants established. Over the years, the plants have moved with Gauthier from Boston to New York and then on to Bloomington. Over the years, her plants have fared well and now number in the hundreds (with more growing every day).
Gauthier is trying to arrange a permanent home for the Marshall strawberry plants in Maine. In the meantime, working with Kind Aesthetic, home growers may now share in her campaign to re-establish the Marshall strawberry one plant at a time. Gauthier has made some of of these special plants available to home growers. Through thoughtful cultivation, that single plant will produce not just delicious strawberries, but emerging runners will provide more plants, helping to save this endangered crop.
Beautifully packaged and delivered with planting instructions and a numbered metal tag, the journey of the Marshall strawberry is tracked online, each new location marked by a strawberry on an ever-expanding map.
Gauthier is thrilled to give others a chance “to experience what it's like to care for something rare and endangered; to make a difference by joining a community of folks helping to revive a national treasure.”
Admittedly, it’s not cheap. A single plant goes for $65, including shipping. Gauthier considers the project a work of art, each plant lovingly raised and hand-packaged, but it is also an opportunity to make a difference.
Gauthier explains. “This project also is an investment in a healthy food supply for everyone through its contribution toward maintaining genetic diversity, support of local agriculture, and educational outreach around the importance of heirlooms and sustainable growing.”
All that, and a chance to enjoy a nearly-lost strawberry considered by many to be among the tastiest ever grown. Pretty sweet!