Seated at her breakfast table earlier this month, Brunswick artist Leah Gauthier was talking about her almost decade-long quest to revive the endangered, but once prevalent, heirloom Marshall strawberry, many of which are planted just outside the back door. Suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter, Maple Pearl, started banging on the table’s glass surface.
“More strawberries, Mom, please!”
But it was just June 11. Gauthier’s own 80 Marshall plants, in portable mesh pots in the scrappy backyard of the passive solar, custom-built saltbox she’s subletting from a friend, had big green leaves and some blossoms about to swell into green fruit. Still, they wouldn’t be juicy and carmine enough to eat for weeks. So Gauthier opened her refrigerator and pulled out a plastic clamshell filled with vivid red Driscoll’s strawberries. Though organic, and, when tasted, unexpectedly sweet, the berries from the commercial giant still seemed a far cry from the fragile berry she has worked so long (if in fits and starts) to revive.
For now, Gauthier and Maple settled for the California-grown substitute. But they dream of farming their own, and of creating a permanent home in Maine for the Marshall berries, and for their own transplanted selves.
It’s been a circuitous journey for Gauthier, 50, who grew up in an Indiana bedroom community of Chicago, married her high school sweetheart and “surrendered” making art to computerizing law offices in southern California. In her early 30s, she divorced, returned to Chicago and finally went to college to study art. By 2001, she’d landed in Maine, where she gained recognition for natural site-specific sculptures, fashioned from fallen leaves and pine needles, that she installed at Bowdoin College and later, at the Portland Museum of Art Biennial.
Fast-forward to 2006. Gauthier was living in Boston, pursuing a master’s degree in studio art. She was learning about “relational” art, and starting to interact with her audience, encouraging them to taste farmed and foraged food, like the heirloom lettuce and melon she gardened, in ephemeral works that she then photographed.
One day, she happened across an article in a Slow Food publication about the imperiled Marshall strawberry. In it, well-known ethno-botanist Gary Nabhan labeled the exquisite-tasting strawberry one of America’s “top 10 endangered foods.” Like so much other produce, it had been pushed out of the market by sturdier, bred-for-transport varieties. But reading the berry’s forgotten back-story, Gauthier fell hard for its mystique, and she was seduced by the idea that late, great gastronome James Beard had declared the berry to be “the finest eating strawberry in America.”
“I had to grow them to berry right away,” Gauthier said.
She reached out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Ore., a large living collection of legacy berries, hazelnuts and pomes like pears and quince, where some of the only remaining Marshall strawberry plants existed as single clone.
The Oregon repository has fielded more than 230 requests for Marshall divisions, including several from large berry nurseries, said Kim Hummer, the research leader who curates the facility’s extensive strawberry collection. But Gauthier’s request stood out from the standard inquiries from research scientists and commercial growers. The repository botanists were thrilled with her plan to return the strawberries to their native East Coast. (The hybrid berry was discovered as a “chance seedling” in Marshfield, Massachusetts in 1890.)
Eventually, the baby Marshall runners arrived via Fed-Ex envelope, swaddled in nothing but a plastic bag for their 3,000-mile flight.
“It was love at first sight,” Gauthier said. In many ways, it’s remained a quest driven mostly by love. Gauthier isn’t well-versed in the science of the berry (see sidebar), and she admits she is an artist not a farmer – she gardens but is no expert.
Still, from those initial runners, she grew three plants, and she’s since propagated, lugged (and replanted) them through moves to New York City, Bloomington, Indiana and now to Maine, she hopes for good.
Ideally, Gauthier would like to maintain 100 plants, both for divisions (in the last seven years, she’s distributed some 400 offshoots to enthusiasts across the United States) and for her and Maple to eat; the pair are vegan. But in early June, many of her plants looked stunted, and she said she lost one-third of the crop to the harsh winter.
BRINGING IT BACK TO THE BACKYARD
Until the 1970s, when strawberry production consolidated in California and Florida, Americans enjoyed many more varieties of berries, grown in regional pockets around the country.
The aromatic Marshall was the flavor standard-bearer in the Northeast, and also cultivated far and wide in Washington, Oregon and California, as “the backbone of the Northwestern berry industry,” Nabhan wrote as editor of the book “Renewing America’s Food Traditions” that highlighted the berry.
It was particularly prolific on Washington’s San Juan Islands, the principal crop of Bainbridge Island until just before World War II. Then, the area’s Japanese strawberry growers were forced into internment camps, and once the war ended, the delicate Marshall fell prey to imported crop viruses introduced by returning troops.
Any Marshalls that were left after these disasters were phased out by growers when “improved,” disease-resistant, more shelf-stable and prolific cultivars were developed, Hummer said. Unlike the Marshalls, the new berries didn’t “turn to mush” moments after being picked.
Gauthier longs to restore the Marshall to its rightful home: the backyard patch, where the soft fruits are best eaten out of hand.
“You have to grow these varieties to help them keep going,” Gauthier says from her natural light-filled kitchen, looking out the window at her own potted Marshalls. “We’re a pretty far cry from having them available, though.”
A few years ago, Gauthier learned of another Marshall aficionado, already established in Maine: heirloom orchardist and author David Buchanan. He had quietly propagated hundreds of plants from that same Willamette Valley line, which he sought out about the same time as Gauthier did.
In his nationally noted 2012 book, “Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter,” Buchanan described his adventures growing, freezing and making smoothies with these distinctive berries to sell at the Portland Farmers’ Market in Deering Oaks.
Freezing the highly perishable berries preserves their notable flavor and color. That’s why, he wrote, the Marshall was a “mainstay,” key to the establishment of the Pacific Northwest’s frozen food industry.
Buchanan still grows Marshalls on his new property in Pownal, but he says they’ve succumbed to leaf spot fungus. They don’t produce enough for smoothies anymore, and he can’t sell diseased runners at market, like those he used to for $2 a plant. He’s now focused on grafting apple trees and launching a craft cider line.
You’d think Gauthier and Buchanan would be natural heritage fruit allies, but in fact they haven’t met, only exchanged a few e-mails. She hasn’t read his book yet – she says it’s on her list. She’d like to visit his nascent orchard “to see what he’s doing, talk about how he’s gotten to the point where he is.”
Meanwhile, she is searching for a similar value-added product with her berries, akin to Buchanan’s ciders. She envisions selling more plants and staging an annual Marshall Strawberry Festival – “some way where it becomes a self-sustaining thing, too.”
THE MARSHALL PLAN
To that end, she just wrapped up a “Save the Marshall Strawberry” Kickstarter campaign, raising almost $11,000 from 202 backers nationwide, well over her $1,800 goal. She’s also created a new online project hub (www.marshallstrawberry.com) that features a searchable Google Map pinpointing every backyard garden location she knows about where you can find the berries under the heading “Marshall’s Journey.”
Gauthier also feels an urgency to preserve the taste memories of the Marshall before it’s too late. She wants to record an oral history component to her project, interviewing people, likely now into their 90s, who fondly remember this berry from their youth. For starters, she’d like to tape a Kickstarter donor from Oregon who remembers his mother’s dear friend James Beard teaching him to never settle, to “only eat Marshall strawberries and Chinook salmon.”
For years, Gauthier knew her project lacked an “end game.” It was tempting, at times, to give the strawberry plants away, and to move on to something else. Like the berries, she has been on her own life journey. But now that she’s returned to Maine, with daughter Maple in tow, Gauthier – and her Marshalls – are finally ready to put down roots.
Gauthier’s new dream is to build a small educational farm, where she’ll grow Marshall and other rare heritage berries for picking and tasting. She’d like to showcase endangered medicinal/fabric-dye herbs, too. But she’ll need to raise $30,000 for a down-payment on suitable land – she hopes she can pull that off.
“It feels like the right end/beginning to this project,” she said. “Even though it’s opened up so much distributing those plants, I would feel more at rest if both (the plants and the farm) were in place.”