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Plant of the Week

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In a Norman Rockwell moment, I remember a grinning five-year-old boy sitting at our table stuffing biscuits topped with bright red frozen strawberry jam in as fast as he could get them down. The year was 1979 and the jam was some I’d made from several flats of Cardinal strawberries I had picked at the UofA horticulture farm. As a perk, we got to pick the strawberries as long as we picked our entire row and dutifully recorded the yield.

Cardinal strawberry was, for more than a decade, a big deal in the strawberry world, but as often happens during times of change, it slipped from view and now is mostly found here and there in home gardens.

Cardinal strawberry was released from the UofA Agricultural Experiment Station in 1974. It was a sweet, large fruited, June bearing strawberry with good resistance to several of the diseases that plagued strawberries in the early 1970’s. It was bred by Dr. James Moore (1931 – 2017), a Plumerville, Arkansas native, who had a storied professional career at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. During his career he released more than 40 fruit cultivars in such diverse crops as peaches, grapes, blueberries, blackberries and, of course, strawberries.

Moore received his doctorate in 1961 from Rutger’s University in New Jersey where he studied under Fred Hough. When Moore returned to Arkansas in 1964, he called upon his old professor to help him assemble the basis for a strawberry breeding program. Cardinal strawberry, and two early blackberries – “Comanche” and “Cherokee” – were all released in 1974, the same year I arrived at the University.

Cardinal was an instant hit. It was offered in most of the mail order nursery catalogs of the day and became widely grown. According to Dr. John Clark, one of Moore’s students and later his successor at the UofA, the cultivar had good adaptability across the south and soon became one of the principle selections grown in the region. Moore, with his introduction of Cardinal, was attempting to revive an industry that had been in decline for several decades.

The commercial production of strawberries in Arkansas did not begin until the early years of the 20th century, when railroad shipping made it possible to move the perishable crop to distant markets. White County was an early epicenter of production with it slowly spreading out from there. But strawberry production has a major problem. The season lasts only about six weeks and it requires lots of labor for large scale commercial production, so after World War II, labor became hard to find, and acreage declined.

Cardinal was a big deal until it seemed to almost disappear overnight. The first calamity to hit Cardinal was the accidental introduction of a new disease, anthracnose crown rot, into a major strawberry plant nursery in the winter of 1981. This insidious disease doesn’t affect plants much during the cool conditions of winter and spring (when strawberry plants are shipped and sold by nurseries), but when the warm weather of June rolls around, it develops quickly and plants soon wilt and die.

To circumvent this problem, a new emerging technology – tissue culture – seemed like a ready-made solution. According to Clark, this was perhaps the major blow that killed Cardinal as a widespread commercial crop. Cardinal plants, when placed in tissue culture and manipulated with the hormonal and nutrient regimes required to make them grow, reverted to something else. Something entirely inferior. This happened twice, and growers were reluctant to give it another try.

The final blow, according to Dr. Clark, came when strawberry production itself changed. Cardinal was developed for matted row production, the 2-foot-wide raised beds strawberries had been grown in for a century or more. In the 1980s, researchers at North Carolina started experimenting with plasticulture production used in California. Instead of planting a bed and growing plants for four or five years, this method relies on fall planting of an everblooming clone – “Chandler” was one of the most popular – and growing only one crop and then plowing it under. In the ensuing decades, this has become the norm for commercial strawberry growing across the south.

Cardinal plants are still offered by some strawberry plant nurseries. It is still an excellent selection that is well suited for home gardens from zones 5-8.

For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.uada.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.

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