New USDA Strawberry Varieties Brighten the Growing Season

OCEAN CITY, Md. — Have you ever wanted a strawberry so bright and red that your field looks like it's full of Christmas lights? Okay, maybe you haven't thought of it in those terms, but a shiny new strawberry variety promises to start your season with the characteristics growers want.

“It was like the Holy Grail was a big, early, sweet strawberry, right? So now I finally have one,” said Kim Lewers, strawberry research plant geneticist at the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in central Maryland.

Lewers introduced Lumina, his new release for this year, on Nov. 15 at the University of Maryland Mid-Atlantic Crop Management School at the Princess Royale Oceanfront Resort. Lumina brings together qualities that no other early season strawberry can match. Produces very sweet berries. It is firm but has a creamy texture and is not sour. It produces large berries of uniform size and symmetry, and consistently gives good yields.

For added visual appeal, Lumina is unusually bright, to the point that it almost looks wet. It was this quality, the appearance of Christmas lights placed on the black plastic, that inspired Lewers to give Lumina its light-related name. “It's hard to name cultivars,” Lewers said. “Try it sometime. It has to be a word. It has to reflect the cultivar in some way. And they don't give you any type of training about it.”

Lumina could even partially alleviate the need for protection against spring frosts. Some early varieties, including Earliglow, Sweet Charlie and Chandler, never go dormant. They will flourish under winter row covers. “Lumina is not doing that,” Lewers said. “It's about sitting there nice and vegetative, waiting politely until it's time to start flowering and fruiting. And then boom.”

Until now, Earliglow has been the preferred variety for its great flavor early in the season. But Earliglow, introduced in 1975, has frustratingly small berries. Lumina will not necessarily eliminate Earliglow, Sweet Charlie, Galletta and the other early varieties. But Lewers believes he could be a compelling addition.

“Please don't risk the farm with just one cultivar or with my permission or anything like that,” Lewers said. “Try several. Keep an eye on them and see what your customers like.”

In the middle of the spring strawberry season, growers could try Keepsake, a Lewers variety that appeared early in the pandemic. Keepsake, a little later than Flavorfest, is the first variety Lewers released while trying to select its shelf life. It has a classic strawberry look, while Lewers described Flavorfest as having a cute, plump shape.

For Keepsake, even the green top of the strawberry is a selling point. “Keepsake also has a sort of Phyllis Diller hairstyle on top, with more calyx. “It’s very striking,” Lewers said.

Lewers also has a new variety to finish the June production season strong. Cordial is their highest yielding variety and produces lots of large berries. It is resistant to anthracnose fruit rot and tolerates heavy rain exceptionally well.

If there is a downside, it is that Cordial's flavor is average. “I'm not going to tell you it's as good as Lumina, Keepsake and Earliglow, but it's pretty close to Flavorfest, which a lot of people like,” Lewers said.

Due to the pandemic, Lewers hasn't had much opportunity to promote these new varieties to growers until recently.

Lumina, however, is so new that nurseries won't sell it until next year. Interested growers should ask their nurseries to grow it for it to be commercially available. “That's how you get the cultivars that you want to try and that will be good for your farm,” Lewers said.

In his breeding program, Lewers does not use fungicides or fumigants because he wants to select disease-resistant varieties. “If he gets a disease, I want him to die so none of us have to deal with it again,” Lewers said.

It has also gradually reduced its winter cover, from labor-intensive straw to row covers and, last winter, no winter protection. Only one cultivar had problems with the cold (admittedly, it was a mild winter), but Lewers plans to stop using winter cover on his seedling fields to select for winter hardiness.

In spring it still uses automatic watering to protect against frost, although Lumina can of course reduce the need for this.

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