By Michael J Wellik from The Strawberry Store
Over 20 years ago I operated commercial greenhouses and grew bedding plants, Easter flowers and many other standard ornamental crops. I was not happy with profitability and began searching for new crops to grow. I decided to trial a variety of strawberries called ‘Ruegen’. When I bought the plants, I didn’t even realize that this was not a standard garden strawberry. In fact, it was a different species, Fragaria vesca, which is also known as the wild strawberry, alpine strawberry or woodland strawberry. The size of the fruit was the first clue that I was dealing with the unknown. What attracted me and hooked me was not only the unique wild taste, but the incredible aroma.
In the years since then I have collected over 40 varieties of this species from all over the world. I am fascinated with the growth habits of the plants and can’t wait for each new crop in the spring. This species has varieties that produce not only red strawberries, but also yellow and white ones, all with incredible taste and aroma.
My background in research has prompted a lot of questions. Answers to these questions have been difficult to find in print literature. Some of the answers that I found have proven to be misleading or entirely false. My conclusion after literature searches and later, Internet searches, is that this fruit is misunderstood and misrepresented.
Garden writers tend to agree with each other on positioning the plants. The general consensus is to plant the cute little plants along sidewalks spaced 6” apart. They add that you won’t get a lot of fruit or that the birds will most likely beat you to the meager crop.
After growing plants of numerous varieties for a number of years I knew that these writers were “all wet”. It wasn’t until I conducted trials using single plants of several varieties that I had numbers to show how wrong they are. The top two producing varieties in my trial produced over 450 berries per plant totaling nearly a pound of fruit for the spring. I would call this productive. Of course, I did not plant them along the sidewalk where the soil is trampled and polluted with salt from winter ice and snow.
Yes, the berries are small. Each berry typically weighs between one and two grams. For perspective, some of the most productive garden hybrids weigh 20 or more grams per berry. This is another area of misunderstanding. Or, could it be a cultural thing?
Have you ever eaten in a swanky French restaurant? The portions probably surprise you. They may even upset you. Here in the U.S. we expect big portions, more for our money, right? I have been telling people for years that one alpine strawberry has more flavor and aroma than a quart of the giant store bought berries. My experience tells me that there is truth in my statement, but how can this be proved? Until recently I knew of no way to prove what I knew to be true.
For years researchers have been looking at quantifying flavor and aroma of strawberries. Analytical methods have been developed to isolate and identify the compounds in strawberries related to taste and aroma. Most of this research focuses on methods to quickly test new varieties in breeding programs. One researcher showed that wild strawberries contain 15 times the concentration of volatiles that produce aroma than is found in hybrid garden types.
There are many other areas of misunderstanding about alpine strawberries. The last I’ll deal with is their culture. In particular, growing them in strawberry jars, pvc pipes, hanging pouches, topsy turveys, etc. Many gardeners with limited space buy or make such containers. The good news is that these containers can be used to grow hybrid garden types. More good news is that alpine strawberries will grow in them. The bad news is that you won’t get much fruit from alpines when you use these types of containers.
Alpines grow a bit different than hybrid strawberries. Most hybrids produce a single crown. Hybrids work well in containers that have a restricted surface area like a strawberry jar.
Most of the alpines that I grow and sell are non-runnering types. Some call them clumping types. A plant grown from seed produces a single crown or stolon. Over time they send out more underground stolons. The plants literally grow laterally. A single plant in a half barrel will fill that container with stolons in a season or two. It appears to be a single plant but is actually a large number of stolons that can be divided to propagate. I’ve divided a half barrel of alpines and ended up with over a hundred new plants.
A single stolon will produce a few berries in a season. As the stolon ages it doesn’t produce many more berries, though they are a bit larger than those produced by a young stolon. In a restricted area you will get fruit from the number of stolons that can fit into that area. Given space like in a half barrel, those hundred stolons can potentially produce a 100 times more than what a single stolon can produce.
Understanding the growth habits of alpine strawberries can help you choose the right container. Understanding the misunderstandings about growing alpine strawberries will guide you toward more productive plantings and get you on the path to growing strawberries with taste AND aroma.
There are several interesting videos showing Michael Wellik and his Alpine Strawberries on his website, http://www.thestrawberrystore.com/videos.htm