Theoretically, alpine strawberries are a wonderful match for a woodland garden. But after a decade or so, I’m still waiting for mine to prove it. Alpine strawberries, so the story goes, don’t need as much sun to bloom and fruit. In fact, according to the writeups, they need some shade to thrive. Yellow alpines have berries less attractive to birds, less likely to be marauded. And, since I’d had “white” alpine strawberries (really a pale primrose yellow) from the garden of a market gardener (who rightly only allowed us a few out of one of his highest-paying crops), I knew they tasted great.
Many catalogues carry alpine strawberry seeds instead of the plants; I’ve never had any luck growing these, but I don’t claim to be an expert at growing from seed. (Lucky, that.) Which is why, after several tries, I was happy to find places where I could get a few starter plants (some of those resources are below. The original place where I got my own alpines no longer carries them). Having experimented with some of our local, rhizomous wild strawberries and found them slow going, I was happy to find some alpine strawberries with runners, because I thought I could propagate these more quickly.
Alpine strawberries are supposed to fruit all season, through the summer and fall. They are close to wild strawberries in their breeding, so the fruit and leaves are much smaller than the better-known commerical kinds. (The shape of the fruit is different, too; more like a tiny dunce cap than the fat wedges of store strawberries.) Some of them have runners; some spread by rhizomes. They’re hardy to about -20 degrees F (about -29 degrees C), or zone 5, according to the One Green World catalogue; zones 3 to 9. according to the Raintree catalogue. Rosalind Creasy says that alpine strawberries are good to zone 4; I would tend to trust her the most, since I know she has lots of experience as a hands-on gardener in regular people’s gardens, as opposed to nurseries with all the commercial equipment.
Creasy recommends dividing plants every three or four years for best production. Maybe that’s part of my problem; I have never done this. On the other hand, the plants have rarely looked crowded to me. And the plants she’s discussing appear to be the rhizomous strawberries, not the ones with runners; my theory has been that runners are runners, so I just heel in the new little plants-on-a-string the way Ruth Stout recommends, only in a less-organized fashion.
Creasy recommends morning sun for alpine strawberries, or filtered sun from high-branched trees; she warns against full or afternoon sun, which I have found does indeed burn the leaves. Good places for alpine strawberries are in rockeries, borders, and anywhere you need a quick-growing groundcover. I think they make a nice part of the transition garden, that edge where natives start to take over from imports. They take some summer water, though they aren’t nearly as thirsty as their big-fruited cousins, so be sure to plant alpine strawberries with natives that aren’t moisture hogs, but don’t mind some summer water.
After I gave up on growing strawberries in a strawberry pot for reasons of deadness, I put them in some of my self-watering containers, where they have lingered, mostly berriless, to this day. They have copiously produced runners, though, possibly for lack of anything else to do in the shade. I don’t recall getting any berries out of either attempt at growing strawberries in a pot.
Some of the alpine strawberries in pots grew so vigorously that they crept over the edge, where they made several rosettes which managed to root themselves in the dry-summer ground. I’ve also grown a few in the ground on purpose, where they obligingly made a pleasant woodsy-looking groundcover, and more plants – but nary a berry. Since I give them the same fertilizers and foliar feeds that produce flowers in my other plants, I’m guessing lack of sun is the problem, though they do get that morning sun or filtered light that everybody seems to recommend. After all, that market gardener who sparked my alpine strawberry lust by feeding me a treasured few of his alpine strawberries – from berry plants that had plentiful fruit – well, that guy grew his alpine strawberries in full sun. It was in the Pacific Northwest, I grant you; their summers are mild. But still. This strengthens my theory that these berries actually need more sun than advertised. If you want berries, that is.
Even though I have only the leaves, they’re still useful. Strawberry leaves are among the winter-growing plants which have a high vitamin C content; vital in times when no other sources of vitamin C are available. Euell Gibbons devised a way to extract it by filling a blender with strawberry leaves, covering with water, then blending only until the leaves are fine-cut; he let the leaves soak in the water overnight (this continues the water extraction of vitamin C), and strained it in the morning. He recommended this in morning green drinks, or as a way to dilute frozen fruit juices.
Strawberry leaves have traditionally been used as an antiscorbutic – which means they’re effective against scurvy. Since scurvy is caused by vitamin C deficiency, it only makes sense.
My own method of getting the benefit out of strawberry leaves is to include them in what I call ‘garden tea’: leaves of whatever is plentiful at any given time. In winter, that’s usually lavender, sage, strawberry leaves, and violet leaves (which also contain vitamin C). I rub them between my hands until they’re bruised, then simmer them several minutes until the tea is bright chartreuse. Most people enjoy this tea, and it’s very enlivening.
Last fall, in yet another attempt to get some actual fruit, I transplanted the alpine strawberries into some plastic bulb bowls-I had a lot more than my original three plants. (Being an overzealous bulb freak, I also planted some Fritillaria meleagris alba in the same bowls, hoping their small white bells would fit in nicely, and that the strawberries would provide them with the moist, cool root run they prefer.) I set the bowls where they’ll get about half a day’s sun with afternoon shade, and gave them the fertilizing regime I’m giving everything over the fall and winter. We’ll see.
References and Resources:
Both catalogues are good sources for information on growing conditions and garden uses of these strawberries.
Raintree catalogue – has not only the yellow alpine strawberries I planted, but now carries a (presumably really) white alpine strawberry plus two red ones. In addition, there other wild and wild-related strawberries for your delectation.
One Green World catalogue – carries two kinds of alpines, different varieties than the ones offered by Raintree.
Rosalind Creasy, The Gardener’s Handbook of Edible Plants, Sierra Club Books, 1986
Ruth Stout, How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: a New Method of Mulch Gardening, orig. published Exposition Press, 1955, with many subsequent printings. The chapter on strawberries is “Love Will Find a Way”.