The Wild Strawberry


The Shawnee News-Star Gardening May 13th 2020

Becky Emerson Carlberg

I though the cute little strawberries that escorted the Japanese Maple during its move from Maryland to Oklahoma were wild strawberries.  Few berries formed last year, but this spring the small vines have established their territory and seven bright red fruits are ripening.  The outside seeds seemed very prominent, like the proteins sticking off a Covid19 virus particle magnified.  I searched for answers.  The tiny berry is not the native wild strawberry but the mock strawberry, an imposter.

This is not good.  Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), also called European, Virginia or Alpine strawberry, are beautifully sweet and sugary.  Each white flower has five bright white petals, leaves 2-3 inches in length and grow in threes.  The perennials can be found in woods, by streams and even in urban areas.  They produce runners just like their big cousins but their flavor is actually more intense and much sweeter.  Every part of a wild strawberry is edible.

The mock strawberry (Potentilla indica), the Indian or false strawberry, is another thing entirely. The indica species name comes from India, one of the countries where this little invader lives. Japan is also another of its homes, so I guess it made sense the Japanese Maple came with its own 'native' flora.  The flowers have five yellow petals and teeny fruits cloaked in protruding tiny seeds. Flavor is slightly bitter with a cucumber aftertaste, but actually my little berries are slightly sweet and the seeds gently crunchy.  They grow in similar manner in the same places as wild strawberries.

To salvage this article about native plants, Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont Extension came to my aid.  First century AD the ornamental qualities of the strawberry was talked about by the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid.  In the 1300s the French began transplanting wood strawberries (Fragaria vesca) into gardens, joined two hundred years later by another wild European strawberry (Fragaria moschata).  Funny thing, though.  In the 1600's, the Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) was taken to Europe and by the 1700s, English gardeners were cultivating the Virginia wild strawberry.  By saving and then sowing the seeds, they increased strawberry varieties from 3 to 30.

About the same time the French brought to France from Chile another strawberry (Fragaris chiloensis).  Magically or with help, a Virginia strawberry pollinated a Chilean strawberry and formed hybrid offspring. All modern berries"Fragaria ananassa"descend from this crossing, but it took years of hybridization, back-crossing, and selective breeding.

Before 1920 US growers did strawberry breeding, but were replaced by state and federal experimental stations interested in developing new varieties.  All strawberry plants have the same 7 chromosomes in common. Strawberry diversity is attributed to the number of chromosomal pairs of 4, 6 or 8.  The cultivated strawberry we grow/buy/eat today has 8 pairs of chromosomes.  They're octoploids.  With origins traced back to Europe, Asia and North America, the octoploid parent has been most influential in controlling fruit quality and disease resistance.  The octoploids grow wild all over the Americas.  'This makes the strawberry relatively unique as one of only three high-value crops native to the continent.'  Michigan State University.

Strawberry flowers have 20-35 pollen producing stamens arranged in a circle above five or more petals.  A cone shaped structure arises in the center of the stamens.  This female receptable hosts up to 500 pistils arranged in a spiral pattern.  Each pistil has an ovary with ovule at its base.  After fertilization, all these pistils produce the ubiquitous seeds that appear on the outside of the strawberry as the fleshy receptacle expands around the seeds.  Voila, a strawberry.

Strawberry flowers can be self-pollinated by wind, animals or rain, but the best results occur with cross-pollination. Honey and wild bees are the best pollinators.  If bee populations are scarce, strawberry fruit production drops and resulting fruits may be small or malformed.

Commercial production of strawberries has trended to smaller-scale farms catering to local and regional markets.  Berries in OK and TX are limited by a number of factors:  high temps in early summer, higher soil pHs that require high-acid fertilizers, sulfur or compost to lower the pH, insects, molds, mildews, root rot, crown rot.and hail!  Would this be baseball or golf ball size?.  Small farms of 3-5 acres sell fresh while 25-30 acre businesses cater to strawberry processors.  Offseason, Mexico supplies over 11% of the strawberry market.

Strawberry season is here.  With Covid-19 in mind, going outside in fresh air and sunshine away from the masses of humanity to pick the best fresh fruit in May makes super sense.  Check Oklahoma U-Pick Farms and find your orchard.  Check the weather first before venturing out.  This is, after all, May, a very wet stormy month!

'Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.'  17th Century English writer Dr. William Butler.