Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Hugh Murphy

Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry)
genus:  Fragaria
common names: Indian Strawberry

Strawberries are some of the first fruits to ripen in North and South America where they have been enjoyed by indigenous peoples for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  While the origins of strawberry plants are widely unknown, they are thought to be indigenous to North and South America as well as Europe and Asia (Davidson, 757). 

Strawberry plants were not likely cultivated on a large scale until the 17th century when two American varieties (F. virginiana and F. chiloensis) naturally hybridized to create a larger berry (F. x  ananassa) (Davidson, 757).  Early wild strawberries, much like today’s wild strawberries, were much smaller and sweeter than today’s cultivated varieties.  Their small size made them unpopular as a cultivated crop, but their tendency to spread and self-propagate made them readily available in the temperate regions of North and South America.  The name ‘strawberry’ in fact, is an English term referring to the plant’s habit of erratic ‘straying’ (Davidson, 757).

Strawberries were especially important to American Indian tribes living in the eastern regions of the present day United States.  The month of June was known to many tribes as the “Strawberry Moon” as it was the month when most strawberries began to ripen (Berzok, 74).  The Connecticut River Powwow Society celebrates the strawberry moon each June with the ‘Strawberry Moon Powwow’ in Somers, Connecticut (Kavasch, 266).  Over 10,000 people attend to powwow to celebrate spring and nurture friendship and healing (Kavasch, 266).  Attendees drink strawberry moon tea and eat strawberry pan cake.  Similar celebrations are held by the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts (Slowfoods). 


Strawberry plants are comprised of several short, thin vines sprouting from a central underground root.  These vines each contain three leaves.  White flowers develop in late spring before giving way to green or white berries.  These berries ripen into a bright red color in early summer.  Mature plants generally range from five inches to two feet in height and width. 

Wild strawberry plants can be found in the meadows or open woodlands of North and South America, Europe and Asia.  They prefer cool, moist climates but can be found in hot climates in areas with sufficient water (EOG, 1086). 

Wild berries are very sweet in taste and possess a unique aroma.  The genus name Fragaria is from the Latin word fraga or ‘fragrance’. 



Wild strawberries were most popular as a raw, fresh snack picked straight from the plant. Berries from eastern North America were very small, while the native west coast berry (F. Chiloensis) was slightly larger and had flavor faintly similar to pineapple (Davidson, 757).  Both berries were picked fresh and eaten whole.

Strawberries were mixed with cornmeal and baked into strawberry bread (a pre-cursor to strawberry shortcake) or blended with animal fat and cut into a kind of energy bar (slowfoods).  Excess berries were picked, sun dried and stored for winter or added to pemmican, soups, breads or as a flavoring for meat dishes.  

The sweet, juicy nature of strawberries made them a natural choice for beverages.  Strawberries were mashed and mixed with cold water or made into strawberry moon tea. This tea was particularly popular in the Northeastern regions.  It was a cold tea made by combining mashed strawberries, strawberry juice, water and sassafras tea (Kavasch, 274).


Strawberry fruit is an excellent source of vitamin C and was used as a general health tonic to treat a variety of ailments.  A tea made from strawberry leaves was also prescribed to stimulate the appetite and to clean teeth.  



Berzok, Linda Murray. American Indian Food.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2005.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Kavasch, Barrie E.  Enduring Harvests.  Old Saybrook, CT:  Globe Pequot Press, 1995.

Slow Food USA. “Native American Strawberry.”  Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Brooklyn, NY.

“Strawberry.” The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale, 1968.