Without much doubt the first settlers on the Atlantic coast found larger and better wild strawberries than were at that time under cultivation in Europe. Mr. G. E. Stone, in "Garden and Forest," gives many facts from early New England history to sustain this statement. He quotes from Dr. Dwight this statement, written in 1817: "The meadow strawberry of this country is the best fruit of the kind which I have seen. I have seen several that were four and a half inches in circumference, many which were four, and bushels which were between three and four." Professor Bailey also quotes Roger Williams in 1843 as follows: "This berry is the wonder of all the fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent, so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say that God could have made, but never did, a better berry. In some parts where the natives have planted I have many times seen as many as would fill a good ship within a few miles' compass."
The best varieties of the New England and Virginia species were taken to west Europe early in the seventeenth century. Their larger size and superior quality led to the neglect of the native wood varieties (Fragaria vesca), and it was soon found that what was known as the Virginia strawberries gave new and improved varieties from the seed which took rank for a number of years as the largest and best varieties known.
But later the advent of the Chilian species into west Europe marked a new era in the development of the strawberry. The Chilian species (Fragaria Chiliensis) was introduced into France in 1712 and at once became popular. In England the original varieties did not prove hardy enough for outdoor growing, But soon seedlings and hybrids were produced that displaced all previously known varieties. The Wilmot Superb, British Queen, and other Chilian seedlings and crosses were soon grown commercially. In 1857, five hundred acres of the two varieties named above were grown near Brest, which is still a strawberry-growing centre. In this country the varieties originating in Europe were grown with varying success for a number of years, but the cosmopolitan varieties of our present list may be said to have sprung from the pioneer work of a few men who crossed the South American species with those native to our soil. As instances, C. M. Hovey, of Boston, gave us the first very large strawberry by crossing, which is known as Hovey's seedling. J. S. Downer, of Kentucky, in the same way produced the Charles Downing, Green Prolific, and Kentucky. James Wilson, of New York, produced the Wilson's Albany, and William Parmalee, of Connecticut, produced the Crescent seedling. These are noted, as they were the pioneers in the great work of developing our present remarkable list of American strawberries, not excelled, if equalled, in the world.
Professor Bailey says: "The advent of the Chilian strawberry in European and American gardens, and its phenomenally rapid amelioration, obscured the native species, however, and the latter are now practically out of cultivation. Now and then some evidence of native blood can be seen in an early variety, but the influence of our own field strawberry in the improvement of the garden varieties has evidently been very small."
From a botanical standpoint this is wholly true, but from the horticultural point of view the exact adaptation of varieties to our varied climates and soils has largely come from our native species. As an instance, we know that the Charles Downing sprang from a seed of ,the western wild species (Fragaria Illinocnsis) pollinated by a Chilian variety, and we also know that in habit of growth and runners, and in choice aromatic flavor, it follows the native, while the Chilian pollen has given size of fruit and decidedly modified the foliage. Our native species has also transmitted the required hardiness.