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The scientist making Florida strawberries bigger, sweeter and sometimes grape-flavored

We tasted experimental strawberries at a Hillsborough County research facility.

WIMAUMA — Strawberry FL 16.78-109 is a ghost, materializing and disappearing from random store shelves, unannounced, unexpected and, frankly, a little startling.

The flesh is a spectral white, even when it’s ready to eat. Only its tiny seeds turn red, with the slightest pink blush signaling ripeness. There was a sighting at an Aldi in Sun City Center recently.

On a tour of the field where his creations grow, Vance Whitaker examined a row of ankle-high plants looking for a perfect FL 16.78-109. He plucked a berry that by today’s standards could be called smallish and handed it over for a taste.

The disconnect between the visual wrongness of the FL 16.78-109 and its pleasing flavor was a little thrill, not too juicy, with a vague pineapple-apricot twinge.

“At first I thought maybe it’s too gimmicky, the growers might not like it," Whitaker said. “But they started taking them to chefs, and all of the sudden people get all these ideas.”

Red and white berries for Valentine’s Day. Red, white and blueberries for Fourth of July. Dark chocolate on a white strawberry. White wine sangria with white strawberries. A white strawberry garnish on a cocktail glass.

Right now, these berries are in grower trials, which means some farms are harvesting a small amount and sporadically trickling them out to stores.

“We could see these being like a niche, premium product. They should be more available in a year or two," Whitaker said.

The strawberries, a cross-breed with a type of berry from Japan, were bred by Whitaker and his team at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. They represent years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent annually, and they’re one of several new varieties currently in development there.

Whitaker, who has worked at the center for 10 years, is an associate professor of horticulture for strawberry breeding and genetics. He is tall and trim and has the youthful look of an undergrad at age 39, which, he said, “is why I grew this beard.”

He’s pleasantly enthusiastic about his role. Because UF is a land grant university, it has a federal mandate to not only teach and research, but to improve the lives of Floridians. His work is a direct extension of that mandate.

“It’s my job to make strawberries better,” Whitaker said. “I’m really proud that my work is helping improve farmers’ livelihood, and that I’m working on something that’s good for people. Blueberries get all the press as a health food, but strawberries are just packed with vitamin C and fiber and antioxidants and all those cool compounds.”

Vance M. Whitaker, plant breeder at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, looks for ripe strawberries in the field. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The campus, dedicated to agricultural research and development, looks like a tan-brick middle school dropped in the middle of eastern Hillsborough County’s flat farmland expanse. Aside from a tiny shop nearby with a sign reading “fresh tostadas," everything around it appears to be farms, mostly strawberries, though Tampa Electric’s Balm solar farm is across the street.

The main building houses laboratories full of glass tubes and microscopes. It is surrounded by housing for grad students, greenhouses, a motor pool of tractors and 500 acres of fields, where the sun bakes the overripe berries that fall on the ground. The air smells like strawberry jam.

Hillsborough County is as far north as it makes sense to grow winter strawberries, which are easily ruined by frost. Largely thanks to Florida’s 11,000 acres of strawberry farms centered around Plant City, the eastern United States can find strawberries on store shelves even when it’s freezing outside. That includes the important strawberry holiday Valentine’s Day, which is the peak of Florida’s season.

“People think the peak of strawberry season is the Strawberry Festival,” Whitaker said, referring to the annual event in Plant City that attracts national touring musicians like Rascal Flatts and serves up lots of strawberry shortcake. “But that’s actually the end, when the demand is going down and you can get these huge amounts of strawberries for cheap.”

Strawberries being grown for research at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Supplying winter strawberries to more frigid locales is not easy. Strawberries are delicate, and they have to be shipped north fast. They need to be picked at a very particular ripeness, and there’s a short window before that flavor fades. Another factor: Every berry from the more than 180 million plants grown locally each year must be picked by a human hand.

Different people want different things from Florida strawberries, Whitaker said. The growers want strawberry plants that are less leafy, making the berries easier to see and get to and thus more efficiently picked. Brokers want berries that last longer. Retailers want bigger berries that look like a good value on display. The University of Florida breeding program has worked on all that.

One thing everyone agrees on, Whitaker said, is flavor. As we talked, scientists on Whitaker’s team were in the field squeezing strawberries so that the juice dripped into handheld refractometers to measure the sugar content.

You may think you fondly remember the Florida strawberries of your youth as tasting better, but today’s berries are without a doubt sweeter thanks to science. They’re also four times as large as they were in the 1950s, and twice as large as in the ’90s, partly because workers can more easily pick a few large berries compared to a lot of small ones.

In grad school at the University of Minnesota, Whitaker worked on disease resistance in roses. Roses happen to be in the same plant family as strawberries. One of his Ph.D. advisers was Jim Luby, a co-creator of the legendary Honeycrisp apple, essentially the iPhone of fruits, and a forebear of the highly anticipated Cosmic Crisp apple now entering the market.

“I kind of had this example of breeders who were educating me who were doing really cool things,” Whitaker said. “Of course I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I didn’t know it would be strawberries, or Florida, but I came down here and realized there’s this huge industry that’s kind of hidden.”

Unlike apples, strawberries are all simply labeled “strawberries” on store shelves, obscuring the fact that there are different varieties.

UF has developed and patented 15 of them. The first was the berry that helped create the Florida strawberry industry, Florida Ninety, released in 1952 as the first strawberry bred specifically for Florida’s climate. But the first really big hit to come out of the program was the Sweet Charlie. Whitaker has a painting of a Sweet Charlie on his office wall. Released in 1992, it was bigger and sweeter and the dominant Florida variety until Festival was released in 2000.

The Florida strawberries you’ll find in stores this season are Sweet Sensation and Florida Brilliance. Sweet Sensation, released in 2013, has a lighter red color and is very sweet, with big yields. Florida Brilliance, released in 2017, has a glossier shine and bright flavor. A promising new, unnamed variety that could become the standard will be ready in a year or two. It consistently has a perfectly conical shape. Whitaker picked a big one.

“Do you taste the almost honey flavor?”

Field technician Joanna Trejo tests the sugar content of strawberries by squeezing the juice into a refractometer. Part of the work being done is to make strawberries are sweeter, which is appetizing to consumers. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

But while the focus is on improving straightforward strawberries that are familiar to everyone, there is room for some novelty, too, such as the white strawberries.

Whitaker stepped over to another row and found a large ripe berry. This one was a dark ruby red.

“Smell it,” Whitaker said.

It triggered a deep sense of nostalgia. Something from childhood. Taking a bite, it was extremely juicy.

That flavor, is that some kind of ... candy?

Whitaker smiled big.

“How about grape Kool-Aid, maybe?”

Yes, yes, yes.

This new, still-unnamed strawberry is crossed with a fraises des bois (“strawberry of the forest”), a type of small, dark and fragrant wild strawberry from Europe.

“They naturally produce methyl anthranilate, which is the same thing found in Concord grapes,” Whitaker said. “Because we’ve never had that flavor in cultivated strawberries, and because we’ve synthesized that flavor to mimic nature for grape soda and things like that, people think it’s artificial. It’s actually a natural flavor.”

This is slow work for patient people. About 10,000 seedlings make it to the field at the research center annually. Whitaker pointed out the little white flags denoting plants that showed any promise at all this year. There were only a handful. And even then, only one in about every 30,000 seedlings becomes a new variety.

On its website, the university points out multiple times that the strawberries it creates and patents are not genetically engineered, but the results of traditional breeding techniques.

Whitaker could not offer a tour of the crossing house, because of the risk of spreading pests or disease, but he explained how they do this. Basically, they move pollen from a flower of one strawberry plant to the flower of another plant. And they do it selectively, to choose the exact traits they want in the offspring.

Whitaker has also been trying some cross-breeding with old, native species, “like, the ancient progenitor strawberries,” and seeing what happens. There are some cool traits, but also lots of junk traits that have been bred out of strawberries over thousands of years. It’s a project that could take decades to yield anything useful, if it ever does.

“That’s part of what’s great about this place,” Whitaker said. “I don’t have to immediately show a profit from every little project that I do. I can work on something for my whole career. It could take that long."