HERE, in a building guarded only by a standard burglar alarm and a handful of exterior security cameras, scientists at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository, a unit within the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), are even now hedging against humanity’s uncertain future. Within the twenty-eight-year-old facility’s greenhouses, sheds, and freezers, which sprawl through sixty acres of orchards and field plantings, are the fruits and nuts and seeds and pollen of roughly ten thousand plants collected from all over the world. It is the repository’s job not only to protect these precious bits of propagation as some sort of worst-case-scenario refuge, but in many cases, to perfect them through countless rounds of experimentation, making their edible blooms and pomes a leafy Steve Austin: better, stronger, faster.
The plants under the care of the repository’s four USDA scientists and their ten-person support staff are the equivalent of rare artifacts in a museum, each containing a particular story of origin. Except that in this case, the museum pieces are alive. Inside one of a dozen screened sheds are the strawberries that were depicted in early fifteenth-century paintings of the Virgin Mary. Outside, in the orchard—where long rows of trees and shrubs trade shades of red, yellow, and pea green—are several varieties of pears that may have been eaten by the caesars of ancient Rome. There is medlar, a hard-skinned fruit with a mushy middle that Shakespeare used as a metaphor for women: half rotten, half ripe. There are golden quinces from Iran, heavy with a sweet aroma; historians think they, not the legendary apple, were the true stars of the Garden of Eden. There is hardy kiwi, native to the mountains of northeastern China, scaling a trellis—the fruit tastes like its fuzzy cousin but has a shiny, smooth surface.
Inside one of these greenhouses, diffused winter light streams through the glass ceiling, illuminating horticulturalist Kim Hummer and her colleagues as they hover over a small potted strawberry plant that, considering its history-steeped neighbors, appears undeserving of so much attention. Devoid of fruit, the plant’s heart-shaped leaves are edged brown, its runner pale red. It doesn’t look much different than any one of the other hundreds of strawberry plants crowding dozens of long tables. Yet Hummer’s voice brims with excitement. "This is a wild decaploid," she says. "It’s very special."
A Russian colleague of Hummer’s collected this wild strawberry, Fragaria iturupensis, from the side of a volcano on Russia’s Iturup Island. It has ten sets of chromosomes, more than any other known variety of wild strawberry. In general, plants with higher ploidy—the number of sets of chromosomes per cell—tend to have larger fruit. Hummer doesn’t yet know the possible value of such a plant, but she’s captivated by what it might reveal about the strawberry’s ancestry.
Tall, fair, and strawberry blond (yes, really), Hummer wears a vest printed with strawberries (yes, really), which, she matter-of-factly notes, are of another species, Fragaria vesca. In this land of horticulture-speak, everything goes by its Latin name. She crosses an aisle to find a pot overflowing with serrated leaves: a real, live version of the berries on her vest—the classic woodland strawberry with white flowers and small red fruit that’s been consumed by humans in Northern Europe since the Stone Age.