Strawberry Nirvana

June 03, 1994

June means graduation, weddings, Father's Day . . . and strawberries. Within days, the first plump rosy berries of summer will begin appearing at Howard County's roadside stands, at church festivals and on top of breakfast cereals.

Now that fresh produce in the grocery stores comes from Florida, California or even Mexico, strawberries are available just about any time. While these berries that travel long distances often look attractive, they don't have the taste or the subtle fragrance of a strawberry picked at the peak of freshness. Walking through a field of ripening berries in the early morning is the best way to experience the sweet aroma of fresh strawberries. Eating a plump, juicy strawberry covered with dew may be as close to reaching gustatory nirvana as possible.

It appears that the harsh winter just behind us did not do much damage to these fragile plants, which are extended relations of the rose family. Before the winter set in, farmers cover their strawberry plants with straw and mulch. The snow and ice that created such havoc for drivers and pedestrians served to insulate the strawberry plants. The hot spell in May helped speed the flowering of the plants, but the cool weather of the last week has slowed the ripening process.

Beginning in a week or so, thousands of people will be tromping through the carefully tended strawberry fields throughout the county, filling up cartons and boxes -- and their mouths -- with luscious fruit. There is only one way to harvest strawberries: You have to bend over and pick each one by hand. The work is hard, but the rewards are ample. Boxes of strawberries help produce gallons of ice cream, dozens of short cakes and quarts of fresh jam.

For those souls who don't like the back-breaking work of harvesting fresh strawberries, they can experience the next best thing by attending one of many church-sponsored strawberry festivals held throughout the region. On any given Saturday in June, there are festivals from Savage to Sykesville. (Tomorrow, for instance, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Freedom District Volunteer Fire Grounds, Route 32 and Freedom Avenue.)

As quickly as the strawberries ripen, they also disappear. By the time the sun has reached its zenith and marks the summer solstice in late June, the little red gems will be gone for another year.

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