UF/IFAS research: 70 years working on varieties of Florida strawberry

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UF/IFAS research: 70 years working on varieties of Florida strawberry

Scientists at the University of Florida have been studying how to improve strawberry production and global consumption for 70 years.  

They have developed strawberry varieties being grown in more than 50 countries around the world.

During the Florida strawberry growing season, which runs through April, the industry generates $300 million for the state’s economy, which is why its very important to develop high quality varieties that fight disease and pests.

Vance Whitaker and other researchers at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) have bred many cultivars over the years. Among those are ‘Strawberry Festival,’ ‘Florida Radiance,’ ‘Florida Brilliance’ and Sweet Sensation.

Whitaker’s most recent variety is known as the “pineberry,” aka Florida Pearl  ‘109.’ It’s white and has a sweet flavor with a subtle pineapple aroma.

‘Brilliance’ grows on 60% of the state’s strawberry acreage. That’s because the fruit is relatively firm and resists many diseases, said Wael Elwakil, a fruit and vegetable agent for UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County. 

‘Sensation’ is the second most common cultivar because of its savory flavor and size. Growers are increasingly choosing ‘Medallion,’ a newer variety compared to ‘Brilliance’ and ‘Sensation,’ and they’re growing more of it each year.

GCREC is in Balm, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Tampa -- in the heart of Hillsborough County’s farmland. The county produces most of Florida’s 12,000 acres of strawberries, but some of the fruit also grows in Manatee County. 

“The Tampa Bay area is ideal for growing strawberries due to its climate, not so far north as to have too many freezes but not so far south that the autumn is too hot and unsuitable for planting,” said Whitaker, a professor of horticultural sciences.

Strawberry consumption continues to rise in the United States, creating a strong domestic demand for strawberries, he said.

A GCREC fact sheet shows strawberries are rich in vitamin C and low in calories. To keep up with consumer demand for healthier lifestyles, U.S. fresh strawberry production has increased from the past 20 years. 

California and Florida lead the nation in strawberry production, growing over 91% of the crop. 

This fall’s weather has hindered strawberry growers, but Elwakil remains optimistic for a “fruitful” season. 

“The weather this fall has been particularly challenging for the majority of the strawberry growers in the central and south Florida area,” Elwakil said. Hurricanes Ian and Nicole didn’t help. “The overcast, rainy weather persisted, which is not ideal, and in the middle of all of that, we had two freeze events around Christmas.”

Having said that, “Strawberry plants and our growers are both resilient, so we look forward to a good season,” he said.

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