SPEAKING of the strawberry in the 16th century, Dr. William Butler said, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did."
A patch of ripe strawberries here in Maryland means June, days warm as sweet corn, the beginning of summer.
This queen of berries is a member of the rose family. Perhaps that's why we inhale the fragrance so contentedly and dream of strawberry shortcake, strawberries with confectioner's sugar, strawberry tarts. Are we also intrigued by the heart shape?
When I was a child, strawberries were a special treat, served only on early summer Sundays after the midday meal of roast chicken, mashed potatoes and fresh peas. My father especially delighted in strawberries and learned to charm them from my bowl to his with the magic words,
"Look at the robin at the window."
I would turn to look, knowing that while I did, one of my berries would slip onto his spoon. I adored my father more than I did strawberries, though knowing him made me more aware of them.
When we drove near country fruit stands, he claimed to have a sure eye for the best berries, as he did for watermelons. The berries would be warm and sweet.
Maybe that's why, fifteen years ago, I decided to grow a strawberry patch. The first year I set out small plants and reaped enough berries to half-fill a wooden pint.
The second year the berries were prodigious. I knew I should prune away suckers for the sake of future crops and I could do this with tomatoes and chrysanthemums, but not with strawberries. I let the vines have their way and berries grew everywhere. My family enjoyed them straight from the garden. My father said they were the best.
That year my berry growing reached its zenith. Summers thereafter little creatures (never seen) gnawed and consumed the berries. The vines straggled and became indistinguishable from the wild cinquefoil.
The memory of strawberries stays entwined with my father. This year I'm planning another crop. Already apple trees and iris are promising, it's time to plant strawberries -- in a berry barrel where I can watch them and keep away the nibblers. That is, I will when I can decide among Ozark Beauty, Geneva, Senator Dunlap (from before 1890), Stark Red Giant and so many others. They'll be set near the pussy willow wands and forsythia.
If the crop is too meager, there are berries to pick in June in local farmers' fields -- along with pickers sent by the chairman of the local strawberry fair. Each year she has anxious moments: She needs boxes and boxes of juicy berries. On cue.
Somehow her crew always manages to provide a veritable feast: berries to eat with whipped cream or cobbler, jars of preserves, berries appliqued on aprons, silk-screened on scarves and notepaper, berries to take home. Who could resist?
Later, my plants past bearing, I'll haunt the Farm Woman's Market or find solace in the produce truck with its huge STRAWBERRIES sign. Almost any week I'll be found sniffing their aroma, relishing their vibrant color and, using my father's eye, selecting what I hope is the perfect basket of berries.