‘Niaweh for strawberries’

June is, without question, one of the best months of the year. School is out and vacation has begun. The aroma of cookouts permeates throughout the neighborhood. The sun’s light is still out past 9:30 p.m. and when it does get dark, lightning bugs glitter in the trees. Hummingbirds are recurring friends at the feeder, and perhaps best of all is that strawberry time has arrived. What an indulgent pleasure to sweep aside some green leaves, find the perfect shade of red, and bite into a warm, sun-ripened strawberry. If even just for a short season, we can skip the supermarket berries that are dry with insides that are white and pulpy and enjoy our local crop of juicy, sweet strawberries.

Strawberry shortcake, strawberries and whipped cream, strawberry pie, strawberry jam and strawberry smoothies are just a few of the many ways to enjoy this fruit. Certainly Americans do enjoy them, with 2.8 billion pounds produced in the United States as noted at agmrc.org. Ranking first in the world, about 80 percent is grown in California, with Florida producing most berries in the winter months.

Fortunately, strawberries are also grown in other states, including New York. Although the weather always plays a factor, we can count on sometime in June to pick this fruit and reap its many health benefits. According to whfoods.com, strawberries are rich in antioxidants; third among all foods. One cup is only about 45 calories and contains more than 140 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C with a good amount of other vitamins, minerals and fiber. When consumed regularly, researchers found they help with cardiovascular health, improve regulation of blood sugar, and provide a benefit in the prevention of some cancers. Medicinal and delicious at the same time! Just make sure you try to pick or purchase your berries from a known source because as with other fruits and vegetables, residual pesticides may be present with the top twelve known as the “Dirty Dozen.”

Wild strawberries have been eaten for centuries. Modern cultivation credit is given to the French in the 1700s when a variety from Chile was crossbred with one from North America. As stated on whfoods.com, this larger and sweeter fruit became quite popular and with the advent of railroads in the 1800s could be transported to more people. Grown in other areas and cultures of the world, the berry has been used as a digestive aid and for blemished skin and sunburn. Romans thought strawberries relieved bad breath and depression. “Taming the wild strawberry” from vegparadise.com, recounts ancient folklore from the berry’s heart shape and red color associated with romance. A legend says that if you break a double strawberry in half and share it you are destined to fall in love. Medieval stonemasons also carved strawberry designs on altars and around pillars in churches and cathedrals.

Closer to home, the American Indians were already cultivating and eating strawberries when the colonists arrived. Many tribes transplanted the little plants from the woods and cultivated them in beds to use in beverages, soup, and bread. One treat was crushed berries mixed with cornmeal and made into bread. After trying this bread, the colonists developed their own version, which today we know as strawberry shortcake.

A wonderful book called, “Stories the Iroquois Tell Their Children,” by Mabel Powers in 1917, tells how the strawberry is one of the best gifts of the Great Spirit to his children. Adopted by the Senecas into the Snipe Clan, Powers became known as “Yeh sen noh wehs,” meaning “One who carries and tells the stories.” She learned and retold the great stories from the lands of the Senecas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Oneidas, Mohawks and the Tuscaroras. One story of course, was about strawberries.

Known by the Iroquois, “little people,” or fairies called “Jo gah oh,” can do wonderful things, one of which is to help the flowers to blossom and the fruit and grains to grow and ripen. They whisper to the growing seeds and show the way to the light. They guide the runners of strawberries, turn the blossoms to the sun, and paint the berries red. Then it is time for the “Strawberry Feast and Dance.” Taking only what is needed and leaving some for “the little brothers of the wood,” the birds and animals, the Iroquois sing praises to the Great Spirit and dance with joy. As recounted by Powers in her book, so greatly is the strawberry prized that is it thought to grow on the Sky Road that leads to the Happy Hunting Ground. An Indian who has been very ill, near death, will say, “I almost ate strawberries.”

Make it a good week and don’t miss out on this special time of year when you can enjoy fresh strawberries. It has been said that “strawberries can make people feel better, make the elderly feel younger by bringing back pleasant memories of days gone by, and above all make little children smile. What other fruit has that power?” All that comes to mind is “Niaweh,” which is the Iroquois word for “I am thankful.”

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