Alpine strawberries cause confusion, as sometimes they’re considered wild, and sometimes they’re not. They’re generally of the genus Fragaria vesca, which grows wild in northern Europe, but various strains have been created, which means they’ve been cultivated to an extent.
In the States, the wild strawberry is likely to be Fragaria virginiana, or Mountain Strawberry, similar to Fragaria vesca. What makes both these strawberries different is that neither of them bears much resemblance to the plump modern garden strawberry, which resulted from an accidental cross of Fragaria virginiana and the South American, larger-fruited Fragaria chiloensis.
Alpine strawberries are much prettier than the beefy modern garden varieties, with small white flowers and fruit held high, often above the leaves. They bear fruit throughout the summer months, with production peaking in mid-summer, and are tough little plants that can tolerate a variety of soils and withstand drought (although treating them badly won’t help the harvest). But do you grow them from seed or runners? Do they really taste good? Are they worth growing? Opinions vary on all of these questions.
The first is the easiest to answer, as some alpine varieties produce runners and others don’t, while all can be reproduced from seed. As for taste and value – well, it depends on what you want.
Many sources will tell you that alpine strawberries are simply delicious straight from the plant, and that birds (and children) devour them avidly. I guess there are alpine varieties like that out there, but I’ve never tasted them. I know I’m not alone in my experience that the berries (at least, of the unknown variety in my garden) smell delicious when freshly picked, but are very small (if one grows to the size of my thumbnail, it’s a bruiser), very light, a bit seedy and quite dry. And now you’re wondering why on earth I’d recommend them, aren’t you?
How to Eat Alpine Strawberries
Well, I was of the "useless-but-pretty" opinion of alpine strawberries until I came across instructions on how to eat them. If you’ve found them sharp but otherwise tasteless, with barely any juice, then try putting a handful in a bowl, sprinkling them with sugar, crushing gently and leaving to macerate for as long as you can bear it.
Within ten minutes the juice has burst out, apparently from nowhere, and you’ll have a mouthful of superb flavour, with a hint of sharpness that sets the taste-buds humming, not to mention an interest and depth that modern varieties really don’t possess. It’s no wonder that they are said to make the best jam.
The fact remains, though, that you really need an awful lot of plants to produce a large crop. In fact, if you want to make jam, I wouldn’t look at less than fifty plants, preferably more.
Strawberries as Ground Cover
I don’t have a lot of space, so jam is out, but one of the reasons I grow them is that they make excellent ground-cover. I’ve let mine run rampant in various places in the flower beds, where they suppress weeds extremely well (some would say "other" weeds) and protect the soil from erosion. Allowed their head, they send out runners with abandon, criss-crossing themselves and producing a deep mat, hiding the feet of taller, bare-stemmed plants.
Once they’re in situ, you just need to check over the bed every so often for any that look diseased and remove them. It’s also a good idea to weed out the plants that are more than a couple of years old, as fruit production tends to fall off with age.
Growing Alpine Strawberries Conventionally
Growing alpine strawberries from seed can be a bit fiddly, so I’d buy in plants to begin with. They make very attractive edging to any vegetable bed or you can grow them in rows, like ordinary strawberries. If wanting them for edging, I’d recommend a runnerless variety, as it’s easier to hoe out seedlings between them, and they tend to make larger plants. They should be planted 12 inches (30 cms) apart, and if you want them in rows, these should also be 12 inches apart. They should go into well-manured soil that you keep damp until they’ve settled in and are growing away.
Getting a Bigger Harvest
There are ways to encourage larger berries. Alpines are very hungry strawberries, more so than their more popular cousins, and research shows that they need a soil that is rich in humus and slightly acidic (remember they’re primarily woodland plants). So, adding bucket-loads of well-rotted compost to the soil every year will please them no end.
They’ll also appreciate the wood ash from your bonfire for the potash content, though don’t overdo this as wood ash is alkaline.
If you really feel like a challenge, you can remove all but one or two flowers on each truss, to ensure that the strawberries that form are larger.
Most of us, unless we dedicate a large amount of space to a large number of plants, are never going to get more than a handful of fruit at a time, but I still think they’re worth it. You can squeeze them into slightly shady places that are often difficult for vegetable crops, they’re ornamental enough for the flower bed and, for a burst of high flavour that sings of summer, they can’t be beaten.
Try them as a dressing on vanilla ice-cream!
By Helen Gazeley