Strawberry season is upon us once again, and you may have noticed that Oregonians go a little crazy this time of year. We get that glossy look in our eyes. When local strawberries start showing up at farmers markets, we know we’ve got a few months of sweet, red heaven ahead of us.
From May to September, each week has a different strawberry variety at its absolute peak, each with its devotees at local U-picks and farmers markets. Oregon strawberries are sweeter and more fragrant than anything that comes in a clamshell. They’re only available for a brief window of time and have a cruelly short shelf life. This ephemerality is precisely what makes them so magical.
A Berry Brief History
Oregon’s love affair with the succulent red berries goes back millennia — first with Native Americans who harvested wild berries both on the Coast and in open woodlands on both sides of the Cascades. When emigrants began their overland journey in the 1840s, one settler, a nurseryman named Henderson Luelling, brought two compost-filled wagons of fruit-tree saplings and berry bushes, with strawberry plants tucked in between. (The nursery he founded at Portland’s southern edge would later become the site where Bing cherries were invented.)
Japanese berry growers had set up farms all over Mt. Tabor in Portland by the 1880s, but within a couple decades, a virus began sweeping Oregon’s commercial berry crops. Fortunately, our native Coast strawberry was resistant, and berry breeders created new varieties using this species. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strawberry-breeding program was founded in the Willamette Valley in 1911, and a decade later, Oregon State University released its first new strawberry — named, unsurprisingly, the Corvallis — and berries could be frozen and shipped using the latest in commercial technology. Today there are dozens of OSU-bred strawberry varieties, including the famous Hood. Oregon continues to be a global leader in strawberry breeding, fourth in the country for production.
Strawberries for Every Use and Season
Most Oregon strawberries can be classified as either June-bearing, which produce one big crop in early summer, or everbearing, which can produce from May until the rains come in October. June-bearing Hoods may get the spotlight in Portland (and for good reason — they’re as sweet and carmine red as they come), but they’re not the only stars. Beloved by many, Albions and Seascapes appear in May and produce throughout the season. By early June, glossy-red Shuksans, Sweet Sunrise, Tillamooks and Hoods arrive on the scene. The lightest, brightest red Bentons and new variety Marys Peak (a firmer berry with a good balance of sweet and tart) arrive by mid-June; and large, dark Puget Crimson are ready in time for your Fourth of July shortcakes.
For jamming, June-bearing Charm is a great choice — it’s similar to Hood in flavor and sweetness, but its larger size and firmer texture make it ideal for processing, especially if you like a chunkier preserve. This also makes it pie-perfect. For fruit salads and smoothies, you can’t beat the intense fragrance and deep color of Seascapes or Hoods. And don’t forget to buy a flat for freezing so you can enjoy them all year long.
U-Picking in Portland, the Willamette Valley and Hood River
If you’re looking for ways to keep little hands busy on unscheduled days or if you want an economical way to freeze berries for smoothies, Oregon’s U-pick farms are the place to go. Call ahead for updates on closures or changes to operating hours.
Closest to Portland, Bella Organic on Sauvie Island offers flats in their farm store and U-pick strawberries in June; they also have wine and cider tastings as well as a rotating menu of solid lunch options. In Hillsboro Smith Berry Barn offers workshops and classes in addition to their selection of U-pick fruits, gourmet gifts and ridiculously good strawberry milkshakes. South Barlow Berries in Canby opens around Memorial Day weekend both for U-pick and flats, and they’re close enough to a few history museums (like Newell Pioneer Village) that you can make a day of it.
Farther down the Willamette Valley, Bush’s Fern View Farms in Junction City has a lively farm store and U-pick strawberries and peaches, but they’re closed in July, so plan accordingly. River Bend Farm in Eugene has U-pick Bentons for their brief, two- to three-week season in June — and a robust selection of pies and jams if you just want to skip to the good part. Eugene locals know to stop by Upriver Organics in Leaburg on their way to McKenzie River trails; they’re best known for their blueberries, but they do offer strawberry U-pick all summer long.
If you’re on the east side of the Cascades, stop by the historic Gorge White House in Hood River — where strawberries are on offer from early June to early September — and stay for wine and cider with sweeping views of Mt. Hood. For more of a whole-farm experience, venture a little farther to Draper Girls’ Country Farm on the Hood River Fruit Loop, where you can pick mixed baskets of berries or orchard fruit, depending on the time of year.