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A Study in Scarlet

Written by Anila Nair, Fulton County Master Gardener

It’s that wonderful time of the year when Mother Nature is at her very best, her coffers full of nature’s bounty, ripe for the picking by man and beast alike. Among nature’s cornucopia, if there’s anything that stands out, it has to be nature’s edible rubies, those tiny morsels of succulent deliciousness, loved by old and young alike: Strawberries. 

From grocery stores to farmers markets to U-Pick’s, they’re a staple this time of the year, tempting us with their lusciousness. However, with each passing year, they seem to get bigger and bigger, some the size of a fist, yet somehow seem to lack the sweetness and the flavor that we all love. The good news is that strawberries are easy to grow which means that if we don’t like the taste or the lack thereof, of what’s on offer, we can grow our own. There is a vast array of varieties and even species of strawberries out there, there is bound to be something for everyone. So let’s take a walk along the yellow brick road to the wonderful world of strawberries.

Author’s own picture of Eversweet Strawberry

Most of the strawberries that we grow in our garden are Fragaria x ananassa which was a chance hybrid produced as a result of cross pollination between the American strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) endemic to the eastern North America and the beach strawberry or the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis). It was given the name ananassa as the fruits resemble the pineapple in smell, taste and berry shape.

Based on their flowering habit, they’re traditionally grouped into two categories: June-bearing and Ever-bearing. However, strawberries occur in three flowering habits: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. The ever-bearing varieties are the day-neutral cultivars that produce flowers regardless of the photoperiod. Some of the popular varieties for Georgia are:

Ever-bearing: Eversweet, Tristar, Tribute, Ozark beauty, Tristan(pink flowers) etc

June-bearing: Earlyglow, Allstar, Chandler, Surecrop, Honeoye, etc

While these hybrid strawberries are bred to give bountiful crops of big red berries, sometimes the flavor might be compromised. However, there have been attempts by many strawberry breeders to capture that elusive flavor of the wild strawberries and one noteworthy introduction by French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet is an ever-bearing variety called ‘Mara des Bois’. Despite certain claims of it being a wild strawberry, it is indeed a hybrid (F. Ananassa) and is one of the superior tasting hybrid strawberries available today. The fruits are much smaller than those of the typical hybrids available in the US and unlike the soft textured wild strawberries, the fruits of Mara des Bois are much firmer. Although, one drawback is that they might not be viable for commercial production as they reportedly don’t travel well. All the better for the home gardener, I say, as we can now grow and enjoy the gourmet variety right in our garden.

Author’s own picture of Mara des Bois

Woodland Strawberry or Fraise des Bois (Fragaria Vesca) 

The woodland strawberry or Fraise des Bois (strawberry of the woods) as they are known in France is native to Europe and Asia usually found growing along the edge of woodlands. They’re very hardy plants and therefore will do well in most growing conditions. Tiny white flowers are borne on long multi branched stalks usually held above the foliage. They are June-bearing strawberries and the fruits are small, rounded and have a nice perfume to it. The plants usually spread by runners and form mat-like colonies. They can also be propagated by using viable seeds.

Fun trivia: The Scottish origin surname ‘Frazer’ or ‘Frasier’ and it’s other variants and the French surname ‘Frézier’ are derived from ‘fraise’, the French word for strawberry. Legend has it that the French nobleman Julius de Berry was knighted by the French King Charles the simple, in 916 AD for a gift of ripe strawberries so succulent that that the king granted the Fraise family (later corrupted as Frazer) a coat of arms with three “fraises” or stalked strawberries. Members of the Frazer family emigrated to Scotland as part of the retinue of the French Ambassador and were later rewarded by King Malcolm for their services against the Danish invasion with land grants and a coat of arms – which contained the original crest of three strawberries and they went on to become Clan Fraser.

Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria alpina)

Usually sold by most seed companies and nurseries as Fragaria vesca, the Alpine strawberry (Fragaria Alpina) is a species of strawberry endemic to the Alps. Vilmorin-Andrieux, the famous French seed company and one time seed supplier to King Louis XV, in their publication, which was later translated to English in 1885 as “The Vegetable Garden:Illustrations, Descriptions, and Culture of the Garden Vegetables of Cold and Temperate Climates”, makes a distinction between wild or wood strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and alpine strawberries (Fragaria alpina). From personal observation, I agree with this classification as the two species are clearly distinct. For one, the berries of Alpine strawberries are bigger, longer and pointed. Also, the Alpine strawberries have a clumping growth habit and I haven’t seen them produce any runners. They’re also everbearing as opposed to the June-bearing nature of the woodland strawberries. They can be easily propagated from seed.

Although most strawberries are red, Alpines also come in white or yellow varieties. Some of the commonly available varieties are:

Red Alpine strawberries: Alexandria, Golden Alexandria, Reine des Vallees, Red Wonder, Mignonette, Regina, Rügen etc.

White Alpine strawberries: Yellow Wonder, White Soul, Pineapple Crush etc.

Virginia Strawberry or Scarlet strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

This is the native North American strawberry. A perennial favorite among children, it is one of the two species of wild strawberries that were hybridized to create the modern garden strawberry (F. x ananassa). The berries are tasty and flavorful although they are much smaller in size compared to the hybrid strawberries and even the Alpine strawberries. They can be propagated by runners or by seed.

Scarlet Virginia strawberry. Pic courtesy of Canva

Chilean strawberry or Beach Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)

Another parent of the modern garden strawberry, the Chilean strawberry or Beach strawberry’s natural range is along the Pacific coasts of North and South America. The flowers are white and the fruit is pale orange to red on the outside and white on the inside. 

Coincidentally, it was Amédée-François Frézier, considered to be a descendent of Julius de Berry who was knighted by Charles the Simple, who first obtained and brought five specimens of Fragaria chiloensis while on an assignment in South America and introduced the species in Europe. 

Chilean Strawberry. Pic courtesy of Canva

Musk Strawberry or Hautbois strawberry (Fragaria Moschata)

Another strawberry native to Europe, it is also known as bubble strawberry or Hautboy strawberry. It is usually found growing along the edges of woodlands. They’re June-bearing plants. The fruits are sweet and highly fragrant with hints of raspberry and pineapple. The round fruits are also much smaller than the hybrid varieties. Unlike other strawberry species, the musk strawberries need a male and female plant (dioecious) to produce berries. There are some hermaphrodite varieties, but even they need pollen transfer from a male or a different hermaphrodite plant to set fruit. Some of the common varieties are as below:

Female: Profumata di Tortona, Capron

Male: Cotta

Musk Strawberry. Pic courtesy of Wikipedia

When it comes to strawberries, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. There’s so much more to them and so many possibilities that we don’t have to resign ourselves to what’s on offer at the supermarket. Strawberries don’t have to be generic; they can be sublime.