The Native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) : Tiny Berries of Joy
Indiana has a native wild strawberry, but it’s not the one you think it is.
Long before I had a farm or even a garden, my friends and I sometimes snacked on little red berries that grew very commonly in unsprayed lawns and open fields. These little red berries were round, covered in protruding bumps, white on the inside, and almost totally flavorless. Despite their lack of flavor, it was fun to pick them and eat them. We were told that these berries were wild strawberries, and so we believed. However, it turns out that the red berries we gathered were not strawberries at all. We had been fooled by the mock strawberry!
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This strawberry misconception is very widespread. The true native strawberry is wildly delicious, but many people dismiss it because they’ve been tricked by the mock strawberry. Mock strawberry is a much more common plant in this area, even though it isn’t native here. In fact, I’ve never seen a native strawberry in the wild. That is a fact I sincerely hope to change by planting many strawberry seeds and helping you to do the same! These plants are easy to grow, and with a little work and a bit of luck, we could be all swimming in jam in just two summers.
Before we go any further, let’s distinguish these two very different (but similar looking) plants.
|Mock Strawberry||Native Wild Strawberry|
|Scientific Name||Duchesnea indica (formerly Potentilla indica)||Fragaria virginiana|
|Native Range||South Asia||All over North America, including Indiana|
|Leaf Description||Strawberry Shaped, No Runners||Strawberry Shaped, With Runners|
|Fruit Description||Usually blueberry sized. |
Red outside, round shape, white inside.
Small raised bumps all over the fruit.
Little to no smell, bland or unpleasant flavor.
Not a strawberry at all.
|Usually raspberry sized. |
Red outside, strawberry shaped, mostly red inside.
Indentations all over the fruit, each one containing a tiny seed.
Smells like a strawberry, tastes like a strawberry.
Is a strawberry.
The Native Wild Strawberry : Uses
Now that we have cleared the good name of this admirable plant, let’s learn more about it. The native wild strawberry can be used as you would use any strawberry. The fruits are smaller than store-bought strawberries, and are closer in size to a large raspberry. Although the fruit is small, it’s very flavorful, and I’ve never seen anybody turn up their nose at a raspberry because it wasn’t as large as an apple. Since my strawberry patch is young, I haven’t yet harvested large enough quantities of berries to make pies, jams, or wine from them. In fact, they rarely even make it to the kitchen, because I eagerly eat them all straight off the plant while I’m working in the garden. This is a berry that needs no enhancement, but I believe it would work exceptionally well in any strawberry recipe.
I’m aware of some edible and medicinal uses for strawberry leaves, but I won’t write about that here because I haven’t tried it yet myself. You can read more about that from Livestrong if you’re interested.
The Native Wild Strawberry : Cultivation Instructions
Fragaria virginiana is easy to grow, but it does need a little extra care in the seed-to-seedling stage. To start, the seeds require sixty days of cold stratification. Don’t let that scare you away! It sounds fancy, but you can definitely do it. One simple way is by storing the moistened, planted seeds in a refrigerator for two months. For more detailed instructions, check out my full article about cold stratification. After you bring your planted seeds out of the refrigerator, they may begin germinating very quickly. However, germination may be staggered such that some of the seeds take much longer to germinate than others. Don’t give up on them. Put them under grow lights as soon as they begin to emerge. Water gently, either by bottom watering or using a very fine mister. That part is really important, and I’m speaking from experience. These plants are so tiny when they first sprout that they can easily be crushed by a strong stream of water from a regular spray bottle or a hose or a faucet. I prefer to start my strawberry seeds right about now, in January. Then they can be moved out of the fridge and into the warm germination area in March, and planted outside in May.
Once your plants have grown to a robust size and the weather has warmed, you can begin hardening them off by gradually acclimating them to life outdoors. Use the same process as you would for tomatoes or any other garden plant. I like to wait until after the danger of frost has passed to plant my strawberries in the garden, even though strawberry plants are frost hardy.
I planted my strawberries in a raised bed in full sun, because I really wanted to get them off to a great start. They very quickly filled the bed and overflowed into the walkways. This coming spring, I plan to divide my two year old patch and try establishing some of these strawberries in the wilder spaces of my farm. I have read that they can grow along the woodland edge, that they tolerate quite a bit of shade, and that they don’t mind damp soil. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if they carpeted the whole farm. Could one possibly have too many strawberries?
The Native Woodland Strawberry
It’s worth mentioning that there is another native strawberry called the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca). Fragaria vesca is the same species that is sometimes called the Alpine strawberry. There are several subspecies of Fragaria vesca, and not all are native to Indiana. The two subspecies that are native are Fragaria vesca ssp. americana and Fragaria vesca ssp. vesca. I haven’t yet found a source for seeds or plant starts for these native subspecies. However, I grew alpine strawberries in my very first garden, and they were lovely. I don’t know what subspecies mine were, but I think they were European. In any case, my alpine strawberries grew very well in sunny garden soil and that they did not spread or produce runners. The berries were small like the wild strawberry, and similarly delicious. If I ever find seeds or plant starts for one of our native woodland strawberries, I will jump at the chance to grow them on my farm.
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