I grow a few different varieties of strawberries (as well as blueberries and other berries) but the stars of all my summer berries, hands down, are the Yellow Wonder alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca).
Alpine strawberries are just about the most perfect patio plant you could hope for. Green, lush, prolific, and full of melt-in-your-mouth berries bursting with a flavor that’s hard to pin down. I liken them to cotton candy, but with added notes of pineapple and rose. They’re complex and intensely aromatic. They’re full of sweetness and lack the tartness of commercially grown strawberries which, in my opinion, prove that bigger is not always better.
Unlike conventional strawberries, which love to spread, most cultivated alpine strawberries don’t sprout runners. Where you plant them is where they’ll stay, making them ideal for small spaces such as balconies and borders.
They concentrate all of their energy into their fruits, which also grow smaller than cultivated market varieties — no more than an inch long with pointed ends, and almost conical in shape. The plant itself is a compact perennial, growing 8 to 10 inches tall with bright green foliage and delicate white flowers.
To chefs, alpine strawberries are sometimes called gourmet strawberries because of their refined texture and taste. You’ll probably never find alpine strawberries in a supermarket, because they’re simply too fragile to make the trip through modern processing and packaging. The berries go from green to ripe to overripe in a blink, and their flesh is softer than what you might be more accustomed to.
But pick them at the right time, when the flesh has a little give and the fruit readily separates from its green cap, and one bite of an alpine strawberry will make you want to rip up your other strawberries and plant only alpines in their place.
Today’s alpines come from the Fragaria vesca berries that were indigenous to ancient Persia. Some archaeological evidence even dates them back to the Stone Age, when humans were first documented as having eaten them. In fact, before our supermarkets were filled with baskets of red, large, firm, tart and sometimes tasteless berries, the only strawberries that existed were wild woodland strawberries that ranged in color from white to red.
Fragaria vesca was then introduced to Europe, where wide cultivation led to several varieties of strongly-flavored alpine strawberries that didn’t stray too far from their predecessor. They eventually fell out of favor in the 18th century when garden strawberries (what we eat today) showed greater promise in the variation for breeding and size of the fruit.
Alpine strawberry plants are everbearing, meaning they fruit in spring and keep producing until frost. It totally delights me to pick a handful of berries in April (which usually never make it back into the house before I gobble them all down) and then to see the plants still laden with berries in August.
I’m partial to yellow alpines because I’ve found that they’re a little sweeter than red alpines, and their pale color, combined with an unusual shape, makes them a standout against my red garden strawberries. As a bonus for those who have to fend off birds in their gardens, it’s said that birds usually ignore yellow berries because they think they’re unripe.
Alpine strawberries are cool-weather plants, so you can start seeds indoors in the summer and transplant seedlings outside in the fall. By spring, the first flowers will appear and you’ll have perfect little fruit to top a bowl of yogurt or simply eat out of hand. Grow multiple plants, and you’ll have enough to adorn a cake next year.
The plants reseed very easily and I’ve often taken a few overripe, nearly-dried berries that were hiding in the foliage and pressed them into the soil elsewhere in the garden. Let them go through a cold winter and in spring, a few strawberry seedlings will sprout in their place.
You can also save alpine strawberry seeds (from homegrown plants or, if you’re lucky, out in the wild) by collecting them from the skin and freezing them for a month to condition them. Afterward, store the seeds in a cool, dark and dry place and sow in spring or fall.
Strawberry plants are perennials. They grow year after year but fruit production starts to decline with age, so they should be replaced every five years or so. If you’re growing them for fruit, treat them like a crop: the more space or larger container you give them, the more productive they’ll be.
But you can also plant them as an ornamental or a ground cover, and enjoy the fruits as a perk!