Not for nothing did Ingmar Bergman, Swede of the Silver Screen, direct the movie "Wild Stawberries," wherein an old man recaptures youth. Nor did whimsy make Bogart's Captain Queeg, in "The Caine Mutiny," go bananas when his strawberries fled the gallery.
There's something to this bite-sized wonder, as ephemeral as the season in which it grows, that works on human psyche. It may have something to do with how folks remember their childhoods.
"I grew up in a township called Springfield in Vermont," George Darrow says, "and our mother always used to take us kids out to pick strawberries in the meadows. We just naturally loved to eat strawberries. I suppose I've been interested in them ever since."
Now that strawberry season's come, you can hardly do better for sheer delight -- or Delite, as one strain has it -- than get outdoors and pick your own. As spring turns to summer, and summer fall, you'll also be able to pluck everything from cherries to apples -- or spinach to pumpkins -- at pick-your-own farms in the area. And as you do, you might give a thought to the good Dr. Darrow, now of Glenn Dale, Maryland.
Though he's an important bit of history, you've probably never heard of him. At 92, he's grand old man of the American strawberry industry, a peerless plant physiologist and, from 1913 to 1957, the prime mover of small fruit research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"If it weren't for him," says Glenn Stadelbacher, an agricultural consultant about town, "there wouldn't be an American strawberry industry." At which Darrow bridles, "I wouldn't say that. There would still be strawberries in this country. We like them -- too well."
Darrow, whose name graces its own breed of berries, should know. He's fought a lifetime against root rot, leaf scorch, wilt, aphids and mites so that no bowl of sweet cream would ever be boring. "One of the great strawberry experts of the world," his late chum Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt's agriculture secretary and onetime vice president, once called him. "Uncle George," meanwhile, is how they still refer to him at the U.S.D.A. laboratory in Beltsville.
A 1910 graduate from Vermont's Middlebury College, where a botany professor quickly recognized his talents, Darrow juggled his job at the agriculture department with advanced work at Cornell and Johns Hopkins, where he got his doctorate in strawberry physiology in 1927. He even pursued horticulture in the Army of World War I, when he was stationed at Fort McPherson, near Atlanta. "I was interested at the time in breeding a new blackberry, but it didn't amount to much," says Darrow, who later went on to advance blackberry breeding as well. "Someone very kindly had lent me his greenhouse. In the meantime, I went into the Army a hospital sergeant and I came out a hospital sergeant."
Criss-crossing the countryside from Oregon to Florida as he crossed different berries in the lab, he became, among other things, an innovator in fruit shipping and handling, a strawberry breeder without equal -- one of this creations, Fairfax, is still going strong in Japan, while another, Blakemore, is a popular dessert berry in the South -- a field marshal in the war against soil virus, and an evangelist for better fruit in general. He also authored countless farmers' bulletins and textbooks -- his private papers are collected at the Department of Agriculture's National Library in Beltsville -- and still dispenses advice.
Benoni Allnutt V, a grower for the last two years, made a point of seeing Darrow before he started up his strawberry operation at the Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Maryland. "For me," says Allnutt, 29, who brought Darrow a blueberry pie for the occasion, "it was like paying a visit to Louis Pasteur. He came in from hoeing in his day-lily patch -- he's a tremendous breeder of day-lilies, too -- and we just sat down and talked for an hour an a half. He told me things about strawberries I had never even imagined; he really opened up some new ground for me. When I left, I was charged up, for sure."
This season, Allnutt's growing Darrows -- the sweet, firm breed named in the doctor's honor by Donald Scott, a successor at the agriculture department.
"He was single-minded," says USDA researcher John McGrew, one of Darrow's many proteges, "and he didn't care if he had to tread on a few toes. If he couldn't browbeat you into something, he'd chide you into it." McGrew, though, says Darrow is a standout in another way: "It would be hard for anyone to be down on him for long. In all the years I've known him, I've never heard him tell a dirty joke, and I've never heard him say anything nasty about anybody" -- the latter something of an oddity in the competitive business of science.
Darrow, of course, is not the man he used to be -- or at least so he claims, laughing as he tells of getting stuck in a hole recently in his day-lily patch, shouting vainly for assistance but finally escaping on his own. "I don't think I can understand things as well as I used to," he apologizes in his plain New England accent, then launches into a discourse on plant physiology that trips up someone a fourth his age.
"My life has been filled with work, and for that I am grateful," says Professor Isak Borg, the old man in Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," though the same might go for Darrow. "It began with a struggle for daily bread and developed into a continuous pursuit of a beloved beloved science." THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT Rod Parker, a 38-year-old ex-Navy flier, was standing in his 30-acre strawberry patch the other day, waiting for madness. "On a good day," mused Parker, one of the sons in E.A. Parker & Sons of Clinton, Maryland, "you might find 400 people out here, loading themselves up with berries." The vision, something akin to "Supermarket Sweepstakes," is enough to make you crave a strawberry daiquiri, nicely spiked. Though Parker allows, "The people who come out to pick their own are generally pretty good folks who are not afraid of hard work. Also, it's a lot of fun."
This Memorial Day weekend, throughout most of the area, the strawberry season starts in earnest, with English peas and a variety of greens, such as spinach, mustard and rape, also available in spots. Later come snow peas and broccoli (mid-June), raspberries and boysenberries (July), blackberries and sweet corn (July and August), and, as summer heads toward fall, a selection of peaches, apples, potatoes, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, peppers. squash, cabbage, beets, lima and green beans, turnips and pumpkins. But because growers are skittish about long-range predictions, it's best to call ahead on the day you plan your pick-your-own excursion.
In the meantime, there are a couple of strawberry-festivals this weekend you might want to catch. On SUNDAY from 1 to 5 in Delapane. Virginia (take I-66 west, use the Winchester/Delaplane exit and follow the signs), there'll be dancing in the streets, music and crafts, along with wheelbarrow races and a contest of husband-calling, plus the requisite permutations of strawberries in shortcakes, pies and sundaes at the Delaplane Strawberry Festival. And on MONDAY, the holiday, "Pick and Listen" fest, replete with the Mill Run Dulcimer Band and free wagon rides, is in store at the Innstead Farm, 18020 Edwards Ferry Road in Poolesville, Maryland.
There are about 20 breeds of strawberries popularly grown, with four or five common close by. Over the next month or so, you can pick, from the first to last berry of the season, such breeds as Early Glow, a small, sweet dessert berry; Midway, a firm, durable berry; Guardian, a large berry not quite so sweet as Early Glow; Red Chief, a tart berry popular for pies and preserves; and Delite, an all-purpose berry both freezable and sweet.
The going rate for fresh strawberries this