In late spring local strawberries are on the shelves of area grocery stores. Mine usually produce pretty well too. For small fruit lovers this is a great time of the year.
Strawberries aren’t really berries though. Berries have their seeds on the inside. These tasty red fruits are actually a multiple of achenes. The achene is the seed part recessed into the red receptacle.
The juicy part we eat is called a pseudocarp, which means ‘false fruit’, but few people probably care. Commercial strawberries are a hybrid of two wild species, the Virginia strawberry and the European strawberry. The Virginia strawberry can be found in every state except Hawaii and in every Canadian province.
Wild strawberries grow best in well drained soils. They also produce much better in full sun, although they may be found in shady places. They also tolerate drought well, unlike their domestic cousins.
White rose-like flowers are borne in clusters. Leaves form what botanists call basal rosettes and flowers emerge directly from these leaf bases. Plants don’t have elongated vertical stems.
Strawberries spread by runners, more properly called stolons
. Birds and other animals also disseminate large quantities of seed. Anybody who has ever eaten wild strawberries can vouch for their incredible flavor. Those who have picked any quantity of them know how much work is involved in accumulating any volume.
Wild strawberries are much smaller than the domestic types, particularly some of the newer cultivars that can be almost as large as tennis balls. Often wild fruits are smaller than our fingernails. The concentration of flavor and sweetness in wild strawberries cannot be duplicated though.
These tasty morsels are rare in our coastal plain region. This is a shame. I can remember spending entire mornings picking quarts of them when I was growing up in Maine. Wild strawberry pie or shortcake was a treat I’ll always cherish.
Sometimes we’d stumble onto some strawberries that looked a little different. They were bright red, but their seeds weren’t recessed into the fruit. Flowers were also yellow and not white. They also had no taste. These were Indian strawberries, and they are quite common here. Some call them snake berries.
Many people think they are poisonous but they’re not. Some publications even list them that way, but there are no harmful compounds in them. In fact, they contain significant amounts of Vitamin C. Their problem is simply that they have virtually no flavor whatsoever. I have eaten gobs of them over my lifetime and have never had as much as a single ill symptom. Still, I don’t recommend eating any because they won’t satisfy your taste buds.
Another strawberry species that looks a little like the Indian strawberry does have good flavor. This white flowered one is called the woodland strawberry. It is found in western North Carolina and much of the country.
This little fruit has a simple genetic structure compared to domestic types. Because of this, researchers are working with it to develop new strawberry varieties with better flavor. Tastier shortcakes could be on the way soon.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.