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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008
By LINDA INOKI
Japanese greenhouses are full of strawberry plants in early winter, partly due to Christmas. When this country started to celebrate Christmas Eve, Japanese confectioners came up with an alternative to the dried fruitcakes of Europe: a light sponge decorated in auspicious red and white colors — that is, in strawberries and cream. Since strawberries are now so popular, horticulturalists have produced some excellent varieties in Japan, and in mild districts such as Chiba Prefecture you can pick your own fruit, straight from the plant, from January to May. Strawberries belong to the Rosaceae family. They are low-growing perennials that thrive in light woodland or on banks. They send out long runners that produce small clones, and these readily take root. The English name probably comes from this habit: "Straw" is a version of "strew," which means to scatter. Also, gardeners used to put straw around the plants to keep the berries clean and free of weeds. Botanically speaking, strawberries are not berries but fleshy swellings that hold the true fruits (the pips or achenes embedded in the surface). In the old days, the leaves were used to make a gargle for sore throats, and the "fruit" to calm the blood. The plant pictured above is a wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) that appeared as if by magic in my garden. My wild strawberry produced lots of small, very fragrant fruit this summer, and is still producing the occasional flower even now.