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Carmine one day and Sweet Charlie the next

A strawberry is a strawberry is a strawberry, right?

Wrong.

There are as many varieties of strawberries as there are ways to eat them.

If you consider the options _ dipped in sugar, sliced on cereal, in a milkshake, on a shortcake _ you'll realize there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to enjoy them.

That's how many types of berries there are, each with its own special flavor, look and texture.

The Festival has a great big cap. The Treasure ripens from tip to top. The Sweet Charlie is soft, and the Earlibrite makes up in taste what it lacks in looks.

Valerie Raulerson, who buys berries weekly at Publix, says she has read about strawberry varieties, but her untrained eye can't tell a Carmine from a Camarosa.

"I just try to get those that look the reddest," she says.

Then again, looks aren't everything.

"Last year I got some that didn't look good at all. But they were so sweet they didn't need sugar," Raulerson says. "It's a crap shoot."

So what does an expert look for?

Craig Chandler, who has been studying strawberries for 16 years at the University of Florida strawberry research center in Dover, says he can pretty accurately distinguish one kind of strawberry from another by its look and taste.

He confesses, though, that he rarely buys berries because "I eat so many of them here."

He advises shoppers to look for berries with no bruises or mold and that are fully red. Smell won't tell you much, he says, but touch will. Firm berries are likely to last longer once they get home.

Cost-wise, varieties are all the same, says Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, except soft breeds with a short shelf life.

Some strawberries develop a reputation for not shipping well, so commercial buyers that know the history won't pay high prices for them, Hinton says.

Such a reputation led to the slippage of the Sweet Charlie, which for 10 years was one of the most popular strawberries. The firmer Festival is now the berry of choice, Chandler says.

They and every other variety are the offspring of what might be called the Adam and Eve of strawberry varieties, the Fragaria chiloensis and Fragaria virginiana. Both grow wild in North America, says University of Florida strawberry researcher Craig Chandler. In the late 1700s, a handful of Englishmen took some shoots home to Britain and planted them in their gardens.

The plants cross-pollinated and quite serendipitously begat the first generation of specialty strawberries.

Now varieties with distinguishable family trees bearing such names as Gaviote, Diamante and Aroma populate grocery store shelves.

Thousands of others never make it beyond experimental fields and greenhouse walls, where researchers continually strive to build a better berry.

Chandler cross-pollinates plants in a greenhouse with the goal of producing 10,000 kinds of plants each year. Only one or two of those end up in UF's strawberry field for further study.

It takes five to 10 years for a new strain of strawberry to get to market, says Chandler. Currently, fewer than a dozen are commercially available.

"Each of them has its own little set of characteristics that make them unique," Hinton says. "They will vary a little bit throughout their production cycle, but there's a certain profile you can look at."

That profile includes taste, texture, appearance, disease resistance and best time for harvesting.

The differences may seem small, but they're huge to growers and shippers, who rely on berries from three sources: corporations, universities and private breeders.

When a corporation such as Driscoll's develops a variety, the berry belongs to that firm. Driscoll's accounts for about 10 percent of all the strawberry acreage in Florida, Hinton says.

The company operates research facilities in Dover as well as near their fields in California and Mexico.

When it comes to breeding berries, says Driscoll's vice president of sales and marketing, Michael Hollister, it's like Mother always said: It's what's inside that counts. Flavor and texture are the company's top priorities, he says. But that doesn't mean they ignore the impulsive and, perhaps, superficial nature of consumers.

"It has to look good for them to want to buy it," Hollister says.

State land grant institutions, such as the University of Florida and the University of California, also do a great deal of berry breeding.

Among the varieties developed by UF is the Festival, which accounts for 30 to 35 percent of the strawberries grown in the state, Hinton says. The University of California's Camarosa comprises about 22 percent of the Florida crop.

Growers pay a royalty to the universities for the privilege of planting their berries.

Finally are the berries private labs develop and make available to commercial growers in exchange for royalty payments. The most popular of these is the Treasure.

Growers typically plant at least three varieties to extend the season.

"They all have their good characteristics and they all have their downsides," says Gary Wishnatzki, whose company grows five kinds of berries on its 800 acres in northern Manatee County. "That's why there's a mixture of varieties planted."

All that breeding and cultivation is lost on Winn-Dixie shopper Joan Woodward.

"I just pick up what I like best," she says. "I have a look around and make sure they're not rotten."

_ Janet Zink can be reached at 661-2441 or jzinksptimes.com.

SWEET TRUTHS

Florida is the nation's winter strawberry capital.

15 percent of the nation's strawberries are grown in Florida.

90 percent of Florida's strawberries are grown in Hillsborough County, primarily in the Plant City and Dover area.

MORE SWEET TRUTHS

Strawberries have been cultivated commercially in this area for more than 100 years.

According to the USDA, annual consumption of fresh and frozen strawberries is 4.85 pounds per person.

Strawberries are a member of the rose family.

Strawberries are not really berries or fruit, but are instead the enlarged ends of the plant's stamen.

An average of 200 seeds cover the outside of each berry, making them different from most fruits, which have seeds inside.

A Matter of Taste

Fifty people participated in a recent University of Florida taste test evaluating Camarosa, Carmine, Earlibrite and Festival strawberries.

Tasters were asked to rate appearance and flavor as unacceptable, fair, good or excellent; texture as too soft, just right or too firm; and juiciness as too juicy, just right or too dry or mealy.

The Camarosa, Carmine and Festival got the highest marks for appearance, but the Earlibrite was the clear winner in the flavor category, with 89 percent of the participants rating it as having either good or excellent flavor. About 60 percent of participants placed the other three in the good or excellent category.

Ninety-four percent deemed the Earlibrite texture and juiciness as "just right," while 34 percent called the Festival too firm, 20 percent considered the Camarosa too firm, and 17 percent judged the Carmine too firm. More than 20 percent of the participants rated the juiciness of these varieties as "too dry or mealy."

Source: University of Florida

CAMAROSA

Origin: University of California

Year released: early 1990s

Fruit characteristics: Large size; flat conic shape; very firm; deep red exterior; red interior; seeds vary from light red to dark red and are even with the fruit surface or slightly indented; large cap.

High yield months: March and April

Packagers: Walden Sparkman, Astin Strawberry Exchange, Wishnatzki, Berry Boss

CARMINE

Origin: University of Florida

Year released: 2002

Fruit characteristics: Medium size; conic shape; moderately firm; deep red glossy exterior; red interior

High yield months: December through February

Packagers: Walden Sparkman, Wishnatzki

DRISCOLL'S

Origin: Driscoll's

Year released: N/A

Fruit characteristics: large; conical/bright red, high gloss; internal color goes from light pink to deep red; excellent flavor; seeds yellow to green; large, bright green calyx, rich aroma

High yield months: November through April

Packagers: Driscoll's

EARLIBRITE

Origin: University of Florida

Year released: 2000

Fruit characteristics: Large size; shapes vary but most are conical or wedge-shaped; medium firmness; very juicy; deep orange-red exterior; warm red interior; seeds are yellow-green and slightly protrude above the fruit surface

High yield months: November through February

Packagers: Walden Sparkman, Astin Strawberry Exchange, Wishnatzki, Berry Boss

GAVIOTA

Origin: University of California

Year released: Late 1990s

Fruit characteristics: Large size, rounded conic shape; firm; deep red exterior; seeds vary from yellow to dark red

High yield months: March and April

Packagers: N/A

STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL

Origin: University of Florida

Year released: 2000

Fruit characteristics: Medium size; conic to wedge-shaped; very firm; deep red exterior; bright red interior; large cap

High yield months: Late December through March

Packagers: Walden Sparkman, Astin Strawberry Exchange, Berry Boss

SWEET CHARLIE

Origin: University of Florida

Year released: 1992

Fruit characteristics: Medium size; conic to wedge-shaped; soft; orange-red exterior; orange interior streaked with white; greenish-yellow seeds; very sweet

High yield months: December through February

Packagers: Walden Sparkman, Wishnatzki

TREASURE

Origin: Peggy Chang, a private plant breeder in Naples

Year Released: 2000

Fruit characteristics: Medium to large size; conic shape; firm; dark red at the tip graduating to light orange at the top; small cap

High yield months: March and April

Packagers: Astin Strawberry Exchange, Wishnatzki

The flowers are pretty but are an afterthought to breeders, who spend five to 10 years getting a new berry to market.

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