PLANT CITY — If you attend this year’s Florida Strawberry Festival, bear in mind that University of Florida scientists put a lot of effort into finding genetic traits that make the fruit flavorful for consumers and abundant for farmers.
As this year’s strawberry season comes to a close - and the festival is held from March 4-14 - UF/IFAS researchers announce two brand-new varieties: the white strawberry and a new red one.
The white strawberry seems the most novel.
“Because the white strawberry is being test-marketed this year, there has been a lot of interest in it,” said Vance Whitaker, a UF/IFAS associate professor of horticultural sciences and a strawberry breeder. “The flavor is very different from a typical strawberry, sweet but with a pineapple-like aroma. White strawberries have been popular for some time in Japan, but this is expected to be the first white strawberry on the market in the United States.”
“The new red variety is notable for its outstanding flavor,” Whitaker said. “Because of its high sugar level, it tastes somewhat similar to (another UF/IFAS variety called) Sensation®, which is currently one of the leading varieties in Florida, yet with a more intense flavor due to the fruit’s higher acid content.”
Whitaker works in the labs and fields of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) in Balm, about 30 miles south of Plant City.
In their research, UF/IFAS researchers seek genetic traits that make strawberries succulent and able to dodge diseases. In fact, six years ago, Whitaker worked with other UF/IFAS researchers to pinpoint the compounds that give strawberries the unique flavor that’s so appealing to consumers.
“These varieties are constantly getting better,” he said. “They’re tasting better. So, they fill those needs. They’re lasting longer in the refrigerator, and they’re more consistently available throughout the season.”
Since he arrived at GCREC in 2009, Whitaker has led the development of several new UF/IFAS strawberry cultivars, continuing a long tradition at the research and education center of meeting the needs of farmers and consumers.
Two of the most recent varieties are ‘Florida Brilliance’ and Sensation® and they help strawberry farmers grow their crop more in a more sustainable fashion, Whitaker said.
“They’re friendlier to the environment because they require fewer chemicals to treat pests,” he said. “They’re also increasingly disease resistant.”
Like tomatoes, strawberries are about a $400 million-a-year crop in Florida. The two crops help drive the agricultural sector of Florida’s economy. In fact, farmers are growing ‘Florida Brilliance’ on about 5,000 acres of the 10,000 acres of Florida strawberry industry, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA).
The Florida Strawberry Festival is at 2209 W. Oak Ave. in Plant City.