Local strawberries: A taste treat and nutritional powerhouse
In late spring, I moved into a condominium, regretting that I wasn’t going to be able to do much gardening, with the condo’s practically nonexistent yard. My new kitchen window provided a close view of my neighbor’s neatly kept lawn, sidewalk area and beautiful flowering baskets. The neighbors seemed to be making the most of it and were frequently out tending the yard and even offered to water my flowers (very nice neighbors).
As summer has progressed, the low green foliage next to their house responded to the attention and suddenly became recognizable as a bed of strawberries with delicate white blossoms and deep rosy-pink, heart shaped berries almost hidden beneath the leaves.
Berries have a nearly daily place in my diet but with a limited local harvest, I had forgotten about the sweet Alaska grown strawberries – softer, smaller and juicier than the Lower 48 imports.
Though not widely cultivated in Alaska and uncommonly found as a wild berry, local strawberries are a real treat for the palate and well worth seeking for a seasonal nutrition boost.
Research published earlier this year reported that women who ate more than three cups of strawberries or blueberries per week are 34 percent less likely to have a heart attack than women who ate less than one serving per week. Other research suggests that including strawberries at mealtimes, can lower after-meal blood sugar and blood fat elevations in individuals with heart disease and lower “hemoglobin A1C” in people with diabetes.
Strawberries contain compounds that are neuro-protective and may even help reverse some neurological, age-related decline. Strawberries are also rich in ellagic acid, a cancer-preventing plant compound. A serving of strawberries provides more Vitamin C than a similarly sized serving of orange juice.
Buy or grow your own
My quest for local strawberries took me to several farmer’s markets and a greenhouse. I came home with three hanging bags of Quinault strawberry plants, with blossoms and lots of unripe fruit.
Even someone without a yard can grow strawberries easily in hanging baskets, specially made pots with openings for the leaves and runners, or carefully stacked “towers” of pots, placed in a sunny location.
Strawberry plants like sunshine, protection from wind and well-aerated, frequently watered soil.
For best yields and growth, choose a variety recommended for Alaska.
When berries start to appear, you may need to protect them from birds with netting, although foraging birds may not be too much of a problem for containers placed very close to the house.
The only downside to container growing in Alaska is that the ordinarily perennial plants are not likely to survive the winter unless they can be brought into a garage or other location where they won’t freeze (this may not work with all varieties). The Alaska Cooperative Extension Service has publications on container gardening and growing strawberries.
Store and enjoy them later
You are likely to eat all the berries you grow – the delicious fruity aroma compels you to try just one and before you know it a whole bowl may be gone. If you have more restraint and a big supply of berries, you may want to make some jam or make a summer favorite, strawberry rhubarb pie (both are ripe now).
Strawberries are highly perishable and should be stored in a very cold (32° F to 36°F) refrigerator in a humid (90 percent to 95 percent) crisper drawer.
Do not wash the strawberries before storage and only wash if they are very dusty or dirty. They will last only a few days in the refrigerator.
To keep the berries for longer periods, place in a single layer on a cookie sheet or tray in your freezer and let them get solid. Quickly transfer the berries to a freezer bag or freezer-safe, airtight container and replace in the freezer.
Taste them and see
To date, I have only gotten a few berries from my plants, so I’ve been supplementing with locally grown berries from the farmers’ markets.
In Fairbanks, I tried an Alaska-developed variety of small, intensely aromatic and sweet strawberry, reminiscent of wild strawberries.
In Anchorage, I purchased from an “urban” farmer some larger but still sweet and tart berries that tasted almost like strawberry jam.
For taste comparison, I tried some organic Lower 48 strawberries.
I think that I may have already had my three cups this week but I’m definitely hitting the famers’ market again tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, I’ll still have few to share when I get home.
Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Services in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.