Florida Strawberry Breeding Program Puts Priority On Flavor

Florida Sensation strawberry


With the time for Florida growers to plant strawberries right around the corner, it won’t be long before Florida-grown strawberries appear in grocery aisles.

And for some of the best-tasting strawberries on the market according to multiple taste panels and tests, shoppers can simply look for those grown in the Sunshine State, thanks to work by the University of Florida.

Researchers with UF/IFAS have continued to improve the quality and flavor of Florida-grown strawberries, as evident in their latest releases of the cultivars Winterstar and Florida Sensation.

Winterstar will be available in grocery aisles this winter while Florida Sensation is slated to be available next year. And, while the strawberries won’t be labeled by variety, consumers should look for the Fresh From Florida logo or some other indication that they were grown somewhere in Florida, such as in Plant City, the state’s strawberry capital.

Test panels have often rated Winterstar’s taste above the leading variety in the state, Florida Radiance, said Vance Whitaker, a UF/IFAS strawberry breeder based at UF’s Gulf Research and Education Center in Balm.

“It’s either always been equal to or significantly greater than Florida Radiance in terms of sweetness and overall flavor,” he said.

Rating even higher in flavor is Florida Sensation, which was released earlier this year, but won’t be available in commercial quantities until fall 2014. The university is now looking to negotiate with parties interested in licensing and growing the variety.

“Probably the thing that distinguishes Florida Sensation the most is its fruit quality,” Whitaker said. “It has good, consistent sugar levels and very consistently good flavor.”

Its superior taste has been confirmed in numerous consumer test panels, sensory expert panels, grower trials and chemical analyses.

Sensation also matches or exceeds Radiance in consistent, large fruit size, an important trait for growers. And, while Winterstar’s fruit size is not as consistent, it and Florida Sensation are Florida’s earliest producing varieties.

“Earliness is really important to the growers because they get their highest prices early in the season,” Whitaker said.

Florida’s strawberry industry is more than a century old but experienced the majority of its growth in the last 15 years. This is due in part to increased consumption of strawberries and other berries in the U.S. as well as the release of UF varieties during that time, such as the Strawberry Festival variety, Whitaker said.

“It really had great shipping quality, good firmness and also good flavor and other qualities that allowed the growers to ship it long distances and still maintain good quality, and so the industry grew a good bit around that time,” he said.

Whitaker started with UF/IFAS in 2009, picking up where now-retired UF/IFAS strawberry breeder Craig Chandler left off.

“Even though Craig’s retired, he had a hand in the development of all the genetic material that’s now being used to release these new varieties like Sensation,” Whitaker said. “As a plant breeder, you’re standing on someone else’s shoulders. He did a great job for 25 years developing the previous cultivars as well as the genetic population that we’re still using.”

Whitaker said combining good shipping and harvesting qualities with excellent flavor helps Florida growers set themselves apart from Southern Californian and Mexican competitors.

“Growers can utilize these new varieties to distinguish their product in the marketplace to get people looking for Florida strawberries because of the quality,” he said.