Perennial, stoloniferous herb of fields and meadows, lawns and roadsides; white flowers and, in early summer, sweet red fruits; attractive groundcover for various sites.
By Pamela Johnson
William Bartram (1739-1823), son of nurseryman and plant entrepreneur John Bartram, journeyed into the wilderness of the Southeast from 1773 to 1777; his mission was to “discover rare and useful productions of nature, chiefly in the vegetable kingdom.”1 In his Travels Bartram wrote:
Soon . . . we came to . . . a fine meadow . . . through which meandered a brook, its humid vapours bedewing the fragrant strawberries which hung in heavy red clusters over the grassy verge… We enjoyed a most enchanting view, a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkeys strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads… companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busily gathering the rich fragrant fruit… while other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalizing them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit.2
The New World was Arcadia to some, and Bartram’s description of the meadows and leas of the “Tenase” (The Tennessee River) must have stirred other botanists and explorers, as well as some gourmands eager to sample a novel, enticing, and abundant wild fruit. Two and a half centuries later Bartram’s perfect spring day is easily imagined; the fragrance of warm ripe strawberries almost rises from his prose.
Many of us have come upon these tiny, aromatic gems on a fine day in late May or early June, and been seduced by their scent and the picture they present. Abiding among pasture weeds and short grasses, in abandoned fields and along gravelly roadsides, the fruit asks to be picked. The bribe is just as strong for insects, birds and mammals. Indeed, strawberries beg to be eaten so their seeds can be distributed. Fragrance and color signal the seeds’ maturity; ripened fruit means the lightly embedded seeds are ready to find a new home.
A wild strawberry, though called a fruit or berry, is actually a succulent, modified flower receptacle whose many pistils produce indehiscent seeds called achenes, dotted on the “fruit’s” surface. Consumption of the swollen receptacle, the strawberry, releases and disperses the seeds. Wild strawberry’s (Fragaria viginiana) seeds are recessed, dimpled into the strawberry’s flesh; those of woodland strawberry (F. vesca americana) sit on the surface of the fruit. Both species are found throughout the Northern Temperate Zone, though woodland strawberry’s range is more northerly.
Strawberries were cultivated in Europe from the fifteenth century onwards; the earliest English garden strawberries may have come Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 expedition to the New World. The flavor was Elysian; the fruit’s size was vexing: Thomas Jefferson complained in his Garden Book that “100 fill half a pint.”3 (Sara Stein, in Noah’s Garden, calls strawberries “coy” in their reluctance to fruit in any quantity at once.4)
The challenge of preserving the wild strawberry’s taste, when the plants were cultivated in gardens, bedeviled growers well into the nineteenth century. Peter Hatch briefly chronicles the struggle to replicate the flavor of the wild fruit in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. Henry David Thoreau felt that arduous picking gave wild strawberries their sweetness and “going a-strawberrying infinitely enhan[ced] their flavor.”5 Commercialization was anathema to the wild fruit, according to Thoreau.
Eventually, commercial cultivars triumphed, perhaps because consumers had forgotten the exquisite taste of the tiny wild fruits. Peter Hatch notes, “ L.H. Bailey estimated that over eighteen hundred cultivars of American origin had been introduced [by the early twentieth century]… One wonders if any other native eastern North American plant has made such an important contribution to the world’s horticulture.”6
The modern cultivated strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) is a hybrid of F. virginiana (for flavor) and the larger fruited F. chiloensis, from western North America and South America. Out-of-season supermarket strawberries are certainly large, but ghosts of their wild ancestors in taste.
The wild strawberry’s affinity for anthropogenic (man-made) disturbed sites reflects the plant’s casual nutritional needs. Thoreau insisted that the best (the most plentiful and flavorful) strawberries were found on dry escarpments, and in barrenness. Fruiting does require good sunlight, but strawberries planted in deciduous shade will form a pleasant groundcover; the semi-evergreen trifoliate leaves are tinged with color once the canopy is bare in autumn.
The nectar and pollen of strawberry flowers, and all parts of the plant, feed a host of bees, flies, butterflies and moths, including some insect specialists like the strawberry leafroller moth (Ancylis comptana fragariae), the strawberry cylindrical gall wasp (Diastrophus fragariae), and the strawberry aphid (Chaestosiphon fragaefolii). Weevils, sap beetles, gall midges, sawflies and thrips visit strawberries. Green metallic bees (Agapostemon virescens) are among the most fetching of strawberry attendants, along with skipper butterflies (Hesperiidae). There are also tachinid fly adults who daintily sip strawberry flower nectar, then lay eggs that parasitize the larvae of moths and butterflies.
Deer, skunks, red squirrels, Eastern chipmunks, mice and voles eat strawberries, as do brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, robins, veeries and white-throated sparrows. The ecological value of wild strawberries is significant.
Strawberries are of easy culture, adaptable to a range of somewhat acidic soils as long as drainage is available. Fruit ripens quickly in late spring or early summer because wild strawberries are a cool-season fruit (plants may become dormant in summer heat). The simplest method of obtaining seed is to smear some strawberries on a paper towel, let the smudges dry, and then pick out the seeds. Sow immediately.
1 Bartram, William. 1880. Travels. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc.: p. 14.
2 Ibid: pp. 225-226.
3 Hatch, Peter J. 1998. The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. Charlottesville and London: The University of Virginia Press: p. 167.
4 Stein, Sara. 1993. Noah’s Garden. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.: p 65.
5 Thoreau, Henry David. 1993 Faith in a Seed. Washinton, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books: p. 180.
6 Hatch, Peter J. 1998. The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello. Charlotteville and London: The University of Virginia Press: p. 169.