“Guten Morgen, Fritz, when are you and Frau Ruehl hosting the Erdbeerfest, this year?” I could imagine overhearing such an exchange this morning when I was back among the flowering fruit trees and fiddlehead ferns of the Wildflower Garden at Sportsman Lake in Cullman County, Alabama. This was the wunderbar landscape that inspired me to write the folktale, “WUNDERGARTEN.”
ERDBEERFEST is the German translation of “strawberry festival.” Each year, there are many springtime festivals across the U.S., from Maine to California, that celebrate strawberry harvests. The largest is in Plant City, Florida; it lasts 11 days and attracts half a million patrons.
Strawberry festival towns in Alabama include Berry, Calera, Castleberry, Cullman, Loxley and Moulton. The earliest celebrations may have happened in Cullman County as far back as the late 19th century when German founding farmers began having success with their cultivated erdbeeres and shipping them as far as Cincinnati via the railroads.
A bit of Cullman strawberry history credits P.H. Keslar with introducing the crop to the area. Local readers will note the spelling of this early family, per Wade Warren of Village Furniture, an ancestor, had these iterations: Keslar, Kesler and ultimately, Kessler. Many present-day Cullman belles fondly remember prom corsages, wedding flowers and Christmas arrangements from Kessler’s Florist.
Erdbeere breeding has created many varieties to support shipping, but 150 years since the Colonial Cullman era in which “WUNDERGARTEN” is set, it is still homegrown berries that yield greater flavor and nutritional value. Springtime is delightfully heralded by strawberries, but with a bit of gardening advice, you can grow this perennial from spring through fall.
Our fictional heroine, Frau Ruehl, supported herself, her daughter, ZeeBeth, her farm boy, Fritz and some seasonal workers with her thriving erdbeere crop. She planted rows upon rows of plants. But to enjoy your own luscious, homegrown jewels, you could simply tuck some strawberry plants among your other perennials, or plant some in raised beds.
“WUNDERGARTEN” the folktale has some charming rabbits, but rabbits in a strawberry patch are not so delightful. To protect your strawberries from hungry slugs and rabbits, one of my fellow Master Gardeners suggests planting them in hanging baskets or in high off-the-ground, clay strawberry pots.
Erdbeeres (strawberries) come in many varieties but basically fall under these three types according to Country Living Magazine (spring 2020):
- JUNE-BEARING, which, untrue to their name, come in early spring in Alabama. These berries produce the largest fruit and can be harvested within a two-to-three-week period. Good planting choices are Allstar, Earliglow and Jewel.
- EVERBEARING produce good-sized berries in early summer and then some on into fall. Tiny but flavorful Alpine Erdbeeres were what I imagine Frau Ruehl planting. Such plants had been cultivated in her native Germany for hundreds of years. Good selections are Fraises des Bois and Ozark Beauty.
- DAY-NEUTRAL are not affected by changing hours of sunlight. They will produce a good harvest in the first year and grow all summer long. They are ideal for container gardening. Look for Tribute and Tristar.
CELEBRATING IN THE WUNDERGARTEN – This storytelling culinary series imagines tasty, traditional foods from the recipe box Frau Ruehl brought with her from Germany when she relocated to Colonial Cullman in the 1870s.
Erdbeerfest revelers would have enjoyed dangling the tempting fruits from a long “stem handle” and dipping it into an array of hand-thrown pottery bowls made from Cullman County red clay soil. The naturally sweet erdbeeres could be enjoyed with churned cream, melted chocolate, crushed pecans, yogurt, granola, honey with black pepper or perhaps lavender honey with fresh-snipped mint leaves.
Here is a strawberry-centric recipe the Erdbeerfest goers would enjoy:
WUNDERGARTEN ERDBEERE SALAD
- 1 1/2 cups trimmed fresh sugar snap peas (about 5 oz.)
- 1 (4-oz.) package baby arugula
- 2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
- 1 cup seeded and chopped cucumbers
- 3/4 cup frozen green peas, thawed
- 4 oz. bleu cheese, crumbled
- 6 cooked bacon slices, coarsely chopped
- Sweet Basil Vinaigrette (recipe below)
- Arrange sugar snap peas in a steamer basket over boiling water. Cover and steam 1-2 minutes or until crisp-tender. Plunge peas into ice water to stop the cooking process; drain. Cut peas diagonally in half.
- Toss together arugula, next 5 ingredients and sugar snap peas on a large serving platter.
- Serve with Sweet Basil Vinaigrette.
SWEET BASIL VINAIGRETTE
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 shallots, chopped
- 3 tbsp. sugar
- 3 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
- 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 3/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3/4 cup canola oil
- Process first 8 ingredients in a blender until smooth.
- With blender running, add canola oil in a slow, steady stream, processing until smooth.
HAPPY, FESTIVE STRAWBERRY DAYS and AUF WIEDERSEHEN Y’ALL!
The Cullman Strawberry Festival will take place Saturday, May 6, at Depot Park. Go to www.cullmanstrawberryfest.com to learn more!
Find all columns in this series at www.cullmantribune.com/tag/celebrating-in-the-wundergarten.