Summer is a time of fruits picked fresh in the garden or from farmer’s fields, hands stained with juice, and smiles of enjoyment. Hard to imagine, but you can enjoy the ancestors of our modern-day ruby red strawberries in our wild meadows, roadsides, woods and coastline. British Columbia has native strawberries throughout, just waiting for you to pluck them from the plant and enjoy a burst of sweet flavour. We have three tasty native species of wild strawberries (Fragaria species), which, by the way, you can also grow in your home garden. All three species, wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), coastal strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), and wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) have been involved in the ancestry of one or another variety of cultivated strawberry.
Like many wild and cultivated fruits, wild strawberries belong to the Rose Family (Rosaceae). They grow as perennial herbs and form loose green carpets speckled by clean white flowers. All three wild strawberry species arise from short thick rootstocks anchored to the ground by tough wiry roots. Horizontal runners, called stolons, arch from the parent plant and, where they touch down, a new daughter plant develops. Long purple-, red- or brown-tinted stalks bear three-parted leaves 5–20 centimetres (2–8 inches) above a fibrous crown.
Leaf form and texture are helpful in identifying native strawberries. Many teeth typically line the edge of strawberry leaflets. Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) leaflets are often bluish green and the terminal tooth of each leaflet is usually shorter (smaller) than or equal to adjacent teeth. Wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has a terminal tooth that is larger and longer than adjacent teeth. Wood strawberry leaflets tend to be a bit softer and more yellowish than wild strawberry leaflets. Coastal strawberry leaflets are usually somewhat thicker than the previous species and may even be evergreen. The leaflets have exceptionally noticeable veins.
The white flowers of the species are relatively similar, about two to three centimetres (0.8–1.4 inches) across, perched atop a flexible hairy stem. The flower cluster in wild and coastal strawberry occurs beneath, or at, the level of the leaves. Wood strawberry raises its flowers above the leaves. Small leafy sepals and bracts form a ring at the base of each bloom. Within this cup are five (sometimes more) bright white rounded petals. At the base of the petals, a whorl of about 20 stamens encircles the raised swollen end of the stem, a structure technically called the receptacle. The swollen receptacle sports tiny yellow and green pistils, like pins protruding from a pincushion. As the fruit develops, the receptacle swells even more, presenting the seeds as little pips somewhat pressed into its surface. The mature receptacle is the delicious, though small (about 1.5 centimetres across), fruit sought by wild foragers.
You can find wild strawberries almost everywhere in our province except in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), though it is much more common in the interior than along the coast. It occurs throughout much of the US and the southern half of Canada too. Almost any open habitat, except bogs, supports wild strawberries, but the most favoured habitat has to be the open roadside, where clearing and scraping have created an ideal growing environment. Coastal strawberry, as its name reveals, grows along the entire BC coast. In North America you will find coastal strawberry hugging the coastline from Alaska to California. Interestingly this plant also occurs in Hawaii and along the west side of South America in Peru and Chile, hence the species name “chiloensis”. The natural habitat includes moist, stable sand dunes, meadows and crevices in rock knobs and cliffs. Wood strawberry inhabits open forests, clearings, fields and meadows up to the Subalpine zone. It is widespread in southern British Columbia eastward across North America, becoming rare northward. Wood strawberry occurs widely in Europe too.
All groups of First Peoples knew and enjoyed wild strawberries. Mostly people simply ate the fruits wild off the vine. This was especially a fun event for young children. Sometimes the fruits were mixed and dried with other berries. In some areas the leaves of wild strawberry were harvested and mixed with those of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and other plants and steeped into a sweet tea. Anti-diarrhea medicines for children are made from the leaves. Wild strawberries make excellent jam but getting enough berries is a challenge.
Coastal and wild strawberries are ancestors of our modern cultivated strawberry. Ironically, the garden strawberry has its roots in Europe from these two New World species. Wild strawberry found its way to Europe from Eastern North America after the initial waves of settlement. Coastal strawberry came to Europe from Chile in the early 1700s. Both began to be grown widely because of their superior flavour to European strawberries such as the wood strawberry. At some time in the 1700s, coastal and wild strawberries appear to have formed a natural hybrid in a European garden where both were being grown. The resulting fruit was much larger and the plants more productive than either of the parents, and it retained the excellent flavour of both parents. In no time this strawberry with foreign ancestors came to dominate production in Europe. Being so superior to the wild versions its cultivation spread round the world, returning to the Americas from which its parents had originated.
Even now, coastal strawberries continue to be used to improve commercial varieties. Wild selections and seed strains of wood strawberries have been grown in European gardens for centuries. Known as “fraise des bois” or alpine strawberries, their seeds are widely available from North American seed catalogues. Incidentally the scientific name Fragaria has its origins in the word “fraga”, the Latin name for strawberry.
Native strawberries are easily grown in the garden from offsets, or daughter plants, found at the end of the horizontal runners. Simply cut the runner between the mother plant and daughter plant, carefully remove the daughter plant from the soil and replant with the root crown at the same level as it was when you removed it. The best time to establish the plants is during the moist season from fall to early spring. For best results, plant in a loose soil rich in organic matter or humus. To develop a continuous strawberry carpet, mulch well, and keep the weeds pulled. On the coast, coastal strawberry makes an ideal ground cover for sunny, but not sun-baked, sites. Unlike the other species, it spreads slowly and forms a dense near continuous carpet. You might want to combine the berries with native bulbs such as nodding onion (Allium cernuum) which can poke and flower through the carpet. For the first year or two, cultivate the soil around your starter plants so that the runners will root readily. Sow seeds in the fall over a sand-humus mixture as an alternate method of propagation. Some wild forms seem to have larger flowers than the norm and deserve special attention.
Wild strawberries can hardly be beat as delicious fruit. Combined with the ability for vigorous growth on sunny, sandy disturbed sites, they are an ideal edible ground cover substitute for lawns. And when you eat those giant cultivated fruits, recall that their delicious wild ancestors still thrive on our roadsides and in our woodlands and coastal meadows today.