Meet ‘Dr. Strawberry,’ the California scientist at the back of the sector’s maximum fascinating berries

Some folks have a look at a strawberry and notice a factor to dip in whipped cream. For Phil Stewart, it’s other: He sees doable.

“There are simply a large number of a laugh characteristics to play with,” he says. “And cultivated strawberries are simply the end of the iceberg. It’s a laugh to think about what we will paintings with in relation to wild subject matter.”

Stewart is the worldwide strawberry breeding director at Driscoll’s, the California-based large that controls a 3rd of the sector’s berry marketplace with 900-something growers across the planet. He’s amongst a small military of scientists – breeders, sensory analysts, entomologists, pathologists – that Driscoll’s employs to deal with the standard of its inventory, in addition to create strawberries which can be white as porcelain or style like pungent cheese.

Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll’s Berries, holds white “Tropical Bliss” strawberries in a box used for strawberry analysis in Watsonville, Calif. Stewart is in command of Driscoll’s international strawberry breeding program and is helping create new varieties of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay House Information Staff) 

The science of strawberries, it seems, is rather interesting. Simply poking into their anatomy yields shocks, like that they’re no longer a berry however a “pseudocarp” – a “false fruit” composed of tiny culmination embedded in a fleshy blob. The ones specks at the outdoor are the true culmination, each and every concealing a miniscule seed.

Stewart walks the analysis fields round Driscoll’s ranch in Watsonville, grading crops and tasting berries. He additionally devotes time to the corporate’s “Taste Lab,” the place “Berry Innovators” expand the following new (and quick-to-be-patented) factor. He has the corporate nickname of “Dr. Strawberry,” an honorific he lives as much as with an actual hobby for the berry – pardon, pseudocarp. (This interview used to be edited for brevity.)

Q: What do you experience about being a strawberry scientist?

A: Operating with a plant the place folks in truth need what you produce is more or less great. The arena wishes alfalfa breeders, however no one will get excited while you display up at a birthday celebration with a crate stuffed with alfalfa. Folks get interested by strawberries; they elicit an excessively spontaneous, sure response.

Q: How’d you get into this box?

See also  Recipe: Rick Martinez’s Esquites — butter-roasted recent corn with poblano and chile de árbol

A: I more or less stumbled into it. I had a BA in biology and no actual plans. I ran right into a mom’s cousin’s husband at a circle of relatives collecting who used to be running at Cornell’s enology (wine-science) program. I hadn’t heard of plant breeding sooner than that, however I liked how it introduced in combination such a lot of fields of science – genetics, horticulture, sensory science, chemistry. I fell in love with it with the grapes at Cornell, however what I didn’t love used to be making $11,000 a 12 months. So I were given my Ph.D. and got here to Driscoll’s 15 years in the past.

WATSONVILLE, CA - AUGUST, 24: Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll's Berries, who supplies a third of the nation's berries and ships berries to markets around the world, inspects a plant in a greenhouse used for berry research in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Stewart is in charge of Driscoll's global strawberry breeding program and helps create new kinds of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
Phil Stewart inspects a plant in a greenhouse used for berry analysis in Watsonville, Calif., in August 2022. (Doug Duran/Bay House Information Staff) 

Q: You name strawberries “a laugh.” What precisely is a laugh about them?

A: From a breeding viewpoint, it’s a laugh as it’s a small plant, and you’ll be able to breed them in no time. You’ll have giant populations and notice alternate going down unexpectedly. You communicate to a walnut breeder, who will get a pair generations in over their occupation? It might be onerous to really feel such as you’re making development.

Q: What number of strawberries are you consuming at the common?

A: A large number of the time I consume a pair hundred strawberries an afternoon. We’re having a look at tens of 1000’s a 12 months, most likely. I shed some pounds all over strawberry season as a result of, on a quantity foundation, they don’t have that many energy. I’m simply stuffed with strawberry such a lot of the time that I am going to lunch and really feel like, “Eh, I’m no longer in truth hungry. I’ll simply have a drink and get again to paintings.”

Q: What are the technical main points of what you do?

A: We’re designing crosses or which pairs to mix. We’ve were given genetic knowledge on all of the doable pairs, knowledge from 50,000 places within the genome, and we use that to make predictions on what the offspring usually are like. Then we plan out populations of the ones offspring. Whenever you get one just right plant, you’ll be able to multiply that up into thousands and thousands of crops.

See also  Style-Off: Grocery store strawberry breakfast bars ranked from perfect to worst
WATSONVILLE, CA - AUGUST, 24: Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll's Berries, who supplies a third of the nation's berries and ships berries to markets around the world, stands in a field used for strawberry research in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Stewart is in charge of Driscoll's global strawberry breeding program and helps create new kinds of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
Phil Stewart stands in a box used for strawberry analysis in Watsonville, Calif. (Doug Duran/Bay House Information Staff) 

Q: How have strawberries modified over time?

A: The issues folks have been rising within the 1700s and 1800s, they’ve modified rather slightly. Essentially the most notable factor can be firmness of fruit. The outdated types have been very cushy – you mainly needed to consume them instantly from the sphere. And if you happen to return to outdated illustrations of strawberries they’re a wide variety of random, lumpy shapes with creases. We’ve gotten a lot more difficult on regularity in form.

Q: What’s the “best strawberry”?

A: I need a strawberry this is juicy and no longer too company but in addition no longer too cushy, with a just right steadiness of sweetness and acidity. One of the crucial strawberries which can be super-high in sugar are in truth truly insipid, as a result of there’s simply no steadiness to it – it’s like consuming Kool-Support. Strawberries even have very cool fragrant compounds in them. Some are one-note, however I favor a symphony of aromas.

Q: What’s with the white strawberries Driscoll’s has in retail outlets?

A: There’s a gene for white coloration that comes out of probably the most mother or father species from South The united states. The ones have been introduced again to Europe and crossed with strawberries from japanese North The united states to make hybrids that have been crimson. However Europeans have been used to crimson strawberries, in order that they in no time bred it again to crimson….

We went to a type of first-generation strawberries from the 1700s and bred for that white-color trait. They’ve an excessively other taste profile. We’ve been in a position to stay those truly unique, fruity flavors and tropical notes, like peach and mango and guava.

WATSONVILLE, CA - AUGUST, 24: Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll's Berries, who supplies a third of the nation's berries and ships berries to markets around the world, holds strawberries in a field used for strawberry research in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Stewart is in charge of Driscoll's global strawberry breeding program and helps create new kinds of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
Phil Stewart holds strawberries in a box used for strawberry analysis in Watsonville, Calif. (Doug Duran/Bay House Information Staff) 

Q: Have you ever ever made a strawberry the sector wasn’t able for?

See also  Oakland’s Everett and Jones taking their barbeque out of doors the East Bay for the primary time

A: There are undoubtedly issues we created that we temporarily decided no person would need. There used to be a strawberry that we have been calling the “body-odor berry,” for the reason that aroma used to be approach too harking back to that. After which there used to be a hybrid of 2 wild species that tasted similar to gorgonzola – simply truly robust cheese.

Q: What’s at the horizon of strawberry analysis?

A: I feel the “white whale” of strawberry science is one that may be grown profitably and convey just right fruit in lots of puts in every single place the sector. I do assume local weather alternate goes to have profound results. At Driscoll’s, my hope is that through breeding in several places, we have now the variety in necessities and local weather, in order that anything will paintings anywhere we finish up rising. Strawberries are delicate sufficient that if you happen to bumped up the temperature right here in Watsonville, in no time you wouldn’t have a strawberry business.


Phil Stewart

Age: 48Place: International Strawberry Breeding Director at Driscoll’s BerriesSchooling: Ph.D. College of Florida, M.S. College of Alabama, B.A. Alfred CollegePlace of dwelling: Close to Watsonville, Calif.Circle of relatives: Phil and his spouse Cindy have two daughters


5 issues about Phil

1. He grew up within the Southern Tier of New York state within the the town of Cuba.2. He contributes to medical papers with names like “Validation of Molecular Markers Related to Perpetual Flowering in Octoploid Fragaria Germplasm.”3. He attempted rising strawberries at house however forgot to water them they usually died.4. He likes to shuttle to fascinating puts like Easter Island and Uzbekistan.5. Throughout the pandemic, he were given into natural world images — together with photographs of a hawk that just about hit him with a dropped crayfish.

WATSONVILLE, CA - AUGUST, 24: Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll's Berries, who supplies a third of the nation's berries and ships berries to markets around the world, holds a flat of strawberries in Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Stewart is in charge of Driscoll's global strawberry breeding program and helps create new kinds of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
Phil Stewart, the strawberry breeding director for Driscoll’s berries, holds a flat of strawberries. (Doug Duran/Bay House Information Staff)