The Sweetest Groundcover: Wild Strawberries

May blooms of woodland strawberry

 

Strawberry-scented Memories

My hair still smells like strawberries from the air bnb shampoo I used yesterday. It reminds me of childhood and the scented hair of my Strawberry Shortcake doll. With her round, freckled cheeks and ruffled pinafore, her charm roused her lazy friend Huckleberry Pie every time.

I was out of town to celebrate my brother Palmer’s wedding. When we were kids, our grandpa took us strawberry picking every summer. Their sweet scent mingled with dank mud, both staining our hands and mouths a dirty red.

Strawberries are rich with memories. But, these days, it’s more often the wild ones I seek for habitat gardens, leaving the big-berried treasures for local farmers to grow. They do it so very well. Soon I’ll bring home a flat from the farmer’s market and poke the cores out with a straw to stock my freezer for smoothies.

Chocolate covered strawberries, fat and juicy with a rich shell, were served alongside the wedding cake last weekend. The parents of the modern berry, of course, came from wild ones. A cross of mountain and beach strawberries bred in Brittany, France in the 1750’s led to today’s familiar fruit.

 

this urban tag reminds me of childhood

 

Choose Wild Ones for your Habitat Garden

Wild strawberries do offer sweet berries, tiny in comparison to what you’re used to. My lovely clients, Don and Erica have a cute Korgi named Scooter who hoovers them up as he moves through the flowering perennials and grasses on his short little legs.

Plant wild strawberries in your garden more for the way they cover bare ground, suppressing weeds, and flowering for small native bees, than for their fruit. Just like in Scooter’s garden, wild strawberries weave companionably around other plants without overtaking their neighbors. They’re a considerate community member, intuitively seeking their niche.

 

Three Great Choices

We have three native species of wild strawberries that are usually available from nurseries in the Pacific Northwest.

The first, beach or coastal strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis), you may have seen bravely hugging the Oregon dunes, an understory to the tenacious dune grasses. In the garden, this species is a five star ground cover. With extra-glossy, dark evergreen leaves and a tight-to-the ground habit, beach strawberry’s white flowers shine.

 

Beach strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis) photo: Barbara Bryson

 

The other two, woodland strawberry (Fragraria vesca) and mountain strawberry (Fragraria virginiana) are easy to confuse. I learned how to tall the difference recently from my nursery friends who discovered that they themselves had them mixed up before.

Woodland strawberry has much more deeply veined leaves than mountain strawberry and each leaflet comes to a point. But, the most significant difference from a gardener’s perspective is that woodland strawberry’s flowers are held prettily on tall stalks above the leaves, whereas mountain strawberry has shorter flower stalks and somewhat hidden blooms.

Kristin Currin and Andrew Merritt, authors of The Pacific Northwest Native Plant Primer, call woodland strawberry “one of our best ground covers”.

 

newly planted woodland strawberry (Fragraria vesca)

 

thick groundcover of mountain strawberry (Fragraria virginiana) photo: Barbara Bryson

 

When I admired these differences in Barbara’s garden recently (she grows all of the native species), she commented that “they sure keep the weeds out!”

John echoed this sentiment in his joy-filled email saying, “The density of plants we want is suppressing weeds effectively. The growth of the wild strawberries this year is amazing.”

 

John’s garden is woven together with a weft of woodland strawberries

 

This is a fourth native species, Cascade strawberry (Fragraria cascadensis) that I met high in the Diamond Peak Wilderness area. I’ve yet to see it available in nurseries.

 

In the Garden

Wild strawberries achieve this ground covering super power through stolons. If this is a new word for you, learning it in this context is perfect because strawberries are cited as the prime example in the American Heritage Dictionary definition of stolon: “a long thin stem that usually grows horizontally along the ground and produces roots and shoots at widely spaced nodes, as in a strawberry plant.”

These rooted stems are excellent at holding soil on a slope to prevent erosion. They also make home propagation and sharing plants with friends easy. When the groundcover spreads out of bounds onto your path, just trim along the bed edge and pass along the bounty. They’ll easily root wherever the stem finds a bit of humus-y soil.

You could tackle your patch of weedy shining geranium before it goes to seed, then loosely lay your extra strawberry runners over the ground like a salve. Sprinkle some compost or leaf mold on top, water it in, and let it grow. So satisfying!

 

get rid of obnoxiously weedy shining geranium, then plant some wild strawberries!

 

Make some new strawberry-scented memories this year. Add a blanket of the wild ones. Your bare ground will be sweeter for it.

 

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