Operation Strawberry: One Artist’s Mission to Revive a Heritage Fruit

Through social networking and word of mouth, artist Leah Gauthier is helping preserve the Marshall strawberry, a fragile, juicy, heirloom plant. Just call her Jane Strawberryseed.

Marshall strawberries. Photo by Leah Gauthier
Marshall strawberries. Photo by Leah Gauthier

The juicy Marshall strawberry was once declared “the finest eating strawberry in America”—indeed, legendary gourmand James Beard wrote that it was one of only two strawberries allowed in his mother’s house. Discovered in Massachusetts and introduced to the public in 1893, the Marshall was commercially popular for more than a half century—especially in the Pacific Northwest. But despite its flavorful virtues, it was delicate and susceptible to disease. As farmers transitioned to more robust varieties, the Marshall fell out of favor and become unavailable through large commercial nurseries. When artist Leah Gauthier heard about the berry, she launched a mission to preserve the fragile varietal. She now raises her own strawberries and also ships the plants to growers all over the country. Science Friday recently chatted with Gauthier about the berry’s signature flavor, her art, and how she cares for the plant.

Science Friday: I’ve never had a Marshall strawberry.
Leah Gauthier: You have to taste it! It’s really spectacular—very juicy and intensely strawberry. It bursts with flavor, even frozen. It was savored on the West Coast back in its day for its superior flavor. People who have only experienced the grocery store strawberry will have the strongest reaction. It’s a very different berry, for sure.

Why isn’t it commercially available?
The berry doesn’t ship well except for frozen, and that’s what people once did. It’s one of those strawberries you have to eat right off the vine because it’s too juicy and too fragile for transport. That’s part of the problem. Food’s grown for travel, not for taste.

How did you learn about the Marshall?
I’m an artist, and my medium is food. I did a lot of research on industrial agriculture. I was just overwhelmed by the magnitude of monocultures and pesticides. In the 20th century, we lost some 75 percent of our agricultural genetic heritage. That’s huge! I thought, for my next project, I’ll take one thing that’s going away and try to revive it. I found the Marshall on Slow Food USA’s [a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving food traditions] most endangered food list, and I tracked the plants down at the USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Oregon.* They sent me runners cut from those plants, and my project took off from there.

So, reviving the Marshall is an art project?
I consider the whole thing a ‘relational art piece.’ That means I, as the artist, put forward a situation, and it takes a viewer to complete the task. I can’t revive the strawberry alone—it’s going to take a lot of people in a lot of places. A gentleman from Washington contacted me out of the blue in September. His family had a history with the Marshall. He asked to buy some plants from me. I sent them to him, and it wasn’t as big a process as I thought it would be. So, I decided to invite a bunch more people to join. That got the ball rolling. I’ve placed about 280 plants across the country so far. My hope is that in five years I won’t be necessary to the project anymore. People will look to each other for plants, and the Marshall will have a strong enough hold that it will be back. It will be revived. And, it will be a work of art.

How do you keep in touch with everyone who has a Marshall plant?
I have a Facebook page [EDITOR’S NOTE: This page is no longer available]. I post pictures people send, and people post on the page. Each plant has a specific number, so somebody will post, for example, that 181 and 182 are now reproducing. On the Marshall website, there’s a map of everywhere the plant has gone[EDITOR’S NOTE: This map is no longer available at this link]. I’ve gotten requests from people who looked at the map and said, ‘I see there’s one near Atlanta, and I live near Atlanta. Is there a way to save the shipping fee and contact that person directly?’ So, slowly but surely, it’s happening.

How do people react to the plant?
I get these wonderful letters from people who have memories of the berry and from people who want to make a difference in the food supply, and that’s why they’re growing the strawberry. They know they’re getting this plant in the mail. They know it’s quite uncommon. They know they’re charged with caring for it. You can talk about it all you like, but until somebody gets to experience that—it’s impossible to replicate that emotion.

You and your family recently moved from Indiana to Maine. How did you transport your plants?
The Marshalls traveled in the back of our Penske truck, and a few in the car. All 400 plants arrived safe and sound despite the heat wave.

Are the plants difficult to care for?
It’s been said the Marshall is prone to disease, but I haven’t experienced that. I had been growing it in Indiana the last five years. We had drought. We had clay soil and super hot summers. Last year we reached 107 degrees one day and had a long stretch of 100-degree days. Still, it propagated like mad. My crop kept expanding. They’ve been really hardy berries for me. I did have a big problem with aphids. But I used an organic spray recipe, and it worked really well. I’m a big tea drinker, so I’ll often put my tea grounds in the pot, and the plants seem to like it. Otherwise I use an organic liquid fertilizer and worm casings. That’s pretty much it.

What have you learned from this project?
I think I’ve learned that any time I can open up control of something and allow other people to get involved, the idea has a new life beyond anything I could have imagined. Keeping the strawberries alive was one thing, but now that everybody else has joined, it’s lovely. I’m finding out about more and more people who are participating. I just learned that the strawberry crisscrossed with the Japanese immigrant history. It’s really rewarding to see these complex layers of people and history and lives wrapped up in this one strawberry.

*Editor’s Note: Other Marshall strawberry sources exist, and some do not genetically match the clone at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository, which itself has provided runners to a number of nurseries. 

Meet the Writer

About Jordan Davidson

Jordan Davidson is a freelance writer based in New York and a former Science Friday web intern.