A New, Old Twist on Strawberries

Strawberries White and Early

Awhile ago I plucked some ripe strawberries and handed them to Rachel for a taste. Her ho-hum reaction told me that I hadn’t picked carefully enough. Yes, the berries were white, but that’s their color when ripe — and also when not ripe.You should be scratching your head by now. Strawberries that are white when ripe? Strawberries perhaps ready for harvest in early May here in the Hudson Valley?

The berries I handed Rachel were alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca), a different species from our usual garden strawberries (F. X ananassa). They are a kind of “wood strawberry” (often going under their more upscale-sounding French moniker fraises de bois) first encountered about 300 years ago near Grenoble, France. These strawberries are different from garden strawberries in many ways.

For one thing, alpine strawberries are everbearing. They’ll pump out fresh berries as long as given sufficient warmth, water, and nutrients. Mine are bearing now because they’re planted in the ground in my greenhouse. In my pre-greenhouse life they fruited for me in early spring in 3” diameter pots in a sunny window.And no, the plants hadn’t resided in my home and aren’t now in my greenhouse to protect them from winter cold. I wanted an earlier crop. I also grow them outdoors.

'Pineapple Crush' strawberries

‘Pineapple Crush’ strawberries

Alpine strawberry plants are adapted from where winter temperatures plummet below minus 30°F. to regions that hardly experience winter.

These strawberries also part ways with garden strawberries in not producing any runners. I consider this a plus because the worst weeds in a garden strawberry bed are often the plants themselves. As runners strew about and take root, they crowd each other out. The resulting shade and higher humidity make for lower yields and plants more prone to disease.

About 40 years ago, alpine strawberries were hybridized with garden strawberries, with the resulting plants showing typical hybrid vigor with larger fruits and more robust growth. The variety Florika was one of those hybrids, billed as having very good flavor and sufficient vigor and disease resistance so that it can be planted to create a fruiting meadow. Sara and Rebecka are two other hybrids. (Unfortunately, all are red-fruited.)

I’ve never grown any of these hybrids, but will — very soon. Stay tuned.

Small, But Very Easy to Grow

Alpine strawberries are not the strawberries to grow to fill your freezer for winter. Unless you have a lot of patience, that is, because the berries are small, typically about the size of a dime. (The hybrids bear larger fruits, measuring over an inch long.)

You also will rarely, if ever, find the ripe fruits for sale. If they are truly ripe, they are very, very soft, and very, very perishable. The only way to truly experience these berries them is to grow them yourself (easy) and then harvest them dead ripe (pretty easy).

The plants thrive in moderately rich, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. In pots, any basic potting mixture will suffice. Potted alpine strawberriesA planting can be started from plants or seeds, the latter started just as are tomatoes. Plants grown from seeds planted in spring will begin bearing their first season.

New plants can also be made by dividing old plants, cutting the crown into pieces along with their attached roots. As with many herbaceous perennials, division or starting new plants is a necessity as plants age and their centers become woody and decrepit.

As far as timely harvest, one way is to follow your nose; the berries are extremely fragrant when ripe. Look at the berries: Ripe ones turn from white to creamy yellow, and their seeds darken to brown. Just the gentlest coaxing removes a ripe fruit from its stem.


A number of gardeners grow alpine strawberries, the red-fruited kinds, which come in a number of varieties. There are, likewise, many varieties of white-fruited alpine strawberries. One year I decided to see just how different these varieties are from one another.Red and white-fruited alpine strawberriesIt turned out that all the red-fruited ones were similar, as were the white-fruited ones. For me, the white ones definitely had better flavor. And the flavor could be enjoyed. Why? Because until they are dead ripe, alpine strawberries have taste somewhat akin to cotton soaked in lemon juice. Problem is that birds are very attracted to, and eat, the red fruits no care as to whether or not the berries are dead ripe.

Birds don’t notice the white fruits when they are ripe so leave them alone for our enjoyment.

A few days ago, when I again saw Rachel, I offered her some more carefully picked fruit. She put them in her mouth, blinked and then open her eyes wide, and exclaimed, “Wow!” That’s the usual reaction to the fruit. Ripe, the white fruits are sweet and richly aromatic with a commingling of scrumptious flavors of strawberry and pineapple.


Any gardening questions? Email them to me at and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at


Have Fun, You Silly Ducks

    Wouldn’t you know it: I write about the extended dry spell one week, and the next week, which is now, the rain comes and doesn’t let up. Not that all this rain makes me regret having a drip irrigation system watering my garden. Rainfall could come screeching to a halt and send us into another dry spell.

Ducks, off to work and play

Ducks, off to work and play

     My five Indian runner ducks offer many advantages here on the farmden, not the least of which is affording me the pleasure of watching creatures that actually enjoy cool, rainy weather. The ducks also are entertaining and decorative, spend much of their days scooping insects and slugs out of the lawn and meadow and into their bills, and, especially when living on that diet of insects, slugs, and greenery, lay very tasty eggs. The downside to ducks is that they are dumb, and don’t know to stay out of the road.
    My four chickens offer many of the same advantages as the ducks, except they never seem as at peace with the world as do the ducks. Also, chickens scratch. Scratching at the bases of mulched trees and shrubs exposes roots; scratching elsewhere wrenches young transplants out of the ground.
    Chickens abhor rainy weather.

You ‘Shrooms, Also Enjoy This Weather

    Mushrooms I “planted” last spring are, like the ducks, reveling in this rainy change. “Planting” these mushrooms involved nothing more than pounding short lengths of wooden dowels, purchased with shiitake mushroom spawn growing in them, into numerous holes drilled in freshly cut pin oak logs. A cap of hot wax over each plug sealed in moisture. The 4-foot-long by 4” diameter logs lay in a shady place through summer while being colonized by thin threads of fungal hyphae growing out from the plugs.

Shiitake logs fruiting

Shiitake logs fruiting

   This spring was to be the start of a few years of “fruiting,” that is, making mushrooms, the spore bearing structures of fungi that taste so good sautéed with some onions and butter or olive oil. Dry weather of the past few weeks was slowing the mushrooms’ first appearance, so I decided to shock them. Just bouncing the end of a log against a hard surface, such as a sidewalk, sometimes wakes them up. I opted for a water shock treatment, giving the logs a 24 hour soak in a shallow kiddie pool.
    Right on schedule, within a week of being soaked, mushrooms began popping out all over the logs. With their ends levered into the horizontal openings of a metal fence gate tipped on its side against a tree, the logs and their attendant mushrooms are cantilevered out, perched above slugs and other organisms that might have enjoyed nibbling the fruits of my labor.
    The shock treatment has resulted in a mushroom tsunami. Excess go into the dehydrator, which has them crispy dry and ready for long term storage in about 4 hours. Once the tsunami ends, the fungi need to rest for a month and a half before they’re ready for another shock. Or I can do nothing, and let nature pump out mushrooms more slowly over a longer period of time. Of course, if this rain keeps up — 3 inches in the last couple of days — another tsunami might anyway be in the offing.

And I Can Plant . . . White Strawberries

    With the ground thoroughly soaked, it’s a good time to get plants in the ground . . . except in wet, clay soils. Working a wet clay ruins the almost crystalline structure that develops when it is well managed. Then, instead of the small particles aggregating together to make larger particles with larger pores in between them, letting air into the soil, the structure is reduced to only small unaggregated particles. Spaces between these small particles are so small that they draw in water by capillary action, and there’s no room available for air, which plant roots need. Good for pottery, bad for plants. Wait for any clay soil to dry a bit before digging in it, until it crumbles between your fingers with just a little pressure.
    My soil is a silt loam that’s been enriched with plenty of compost, which helps aggregation, so I can plant now, even right after rain.

'Pineapple Crush' strawberries

‘Pineapple Crush’ strawberries

    Among the plants I’ll be setting in the ground will be strawberries, right in a garden bed. Strawberries, you wonder? Big deal. But these are alpine strawberries. Okay, many people grow alpine strawberries. But these are white alpine strawberries, white, that is, even when dead ripe.
    Alpine strawberries are different from common garden strawberries in that they are a different species (Fragaria vesca), they don’t make runners, and both the plants and fruits are small, the latter about the size of a nickel. Previously, I’ve put a few in pots sitting along my front path for a nibble on the way to the door, or a few at the foot of garden beds, again, for a nibble, here while working in the garden. I want to see how the plants do under the better growing conditions of compost-enriched soil and drip irrigation right in a garden bed.
    Alpine strawberries are small but have very intense flavor, which needs to be fully developed before being picked. I especially like the white ones’ flavor, which can develop fully because, being white when ripe, they’re ignored by birds. The variety name Pineapple Crush gives a good approximation of the flavor.

Potted alpine strawberries

Talking Fruits & Pleasant Aromas


August 6, 2014, “Trials, tribulations, and rewards of growing fruit” meeting of Home Orchard Society (, North American Fruit Explorers (, and California Rare Fruit Growers ( Conference, Troutdale, OR.

August 9, 2014, “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” and espalier tour, Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation (, Mt. Vernon, WA.

August 10, 2014, “Luscious Landscaping — With Fruits!” sponsored by City Fruit, Bradner Gardens, Plant Amnesty, Seattle Fruit Tree Society, and the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals,, Warren G. Magnuson Park, Seattle, WA. 

Earliglo strawberries are on the wane. Time to move on to other fruits, still strawberries but very different strawberries in all respect. Alpine strawberries. The largest of them are the size of a nickel but each packs the flavor of a silver-dollar sized berry.

Alpine strawberry is one botanical form of wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca, often referred to by the French name, fraise de bois), a different species from the familiar garden strawberry. Wood strawberries are dainty plants that grow wild along the edges of woods in Europe, North and South America, and northern Asia and Africa. This is the wild strawberry of antiquity, mentioned in the writings of Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny, the strawberry that garlanded medieval religious paintings and was later depicted in grand proportions in Bosch’s Garden of Delights (c. 1500).
‘Pineapple Crush’ white alpine strawberries
The alpine form of wood strawberry was discovered about three hundred years ago east of Grenoble in the low Alps. It soon surpassed other wood strawberries in popularity because of its fruits are larger and borne continuously throughout the growing season, and because the plants do not make runners. I’ve even coaxed them to bear fruit in small (4-inch) flowerpots.
Some alpine strawberries bear white fruits, and those are the ones I grow, for two reasons. First, the flavor, sweet and pineapple-y, is better than the red ones. And second, being white, the birds don’t notice them so I can wait to harvest until they are dead ripe and delicious. All season long.

That same leisurely harvest is not possible with another uncommon fruit that’s just starting to ripen. Gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora) have a pleasant, tart flavor with a bit of astringency. More than a bit until they are thorough ripe. The variety I planted, Sweet Scarlet (from may be a tad sweeter than run-of-the-mill varieties.
The three-quarters-inch-long gumi fruits, scarlet red and speckled with silver, make a striking picture as they dangle on long stalks from the undersides of the branches. Birds also find the fruits very attractive. I’ve grown gumi for many years and last year was the only year in which I was able to harvest gumis ripe and in quantity. That was the one benefit of last summer’s invasion of cicadas, which birds evidently found more luscious than gums.
Cicadas or not, I’ll keep growing gumis. The large shrubs are able to garner nitrogen from the air, the leaves have an attractive silvery sheen that contrasts beautifully with the scarlet fruits, and the flowers perfume the air with a sweet aroma.
Perhaps the birds will leave me a few fruits to enjoy.
Read and learn more about alpine strawberries and gumis in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (2004).

Let’s segue from tongue to nose and eyes. For years I’ve grown various David Austin roses with increasing success, the increase due to Mr. Austin’s breeding increasingly better roses rather than to my increased skill as a rosarian. It’s cold here on the farmden, and cold is what usually weakened or did in the roses.
My attraction specifically for David Austin Roses lies in the full bodied bushes, their pest resistance, and — most important — the old-fashioned shapes (often rounded or cup-shaped), colors (often pastels), and fragrances of their blossoms.
‘L. D. Braithewaite’ rose
‘Strawberry Hill’ rose
Last winter was brutal for many plants, roses included. Yet the variety L. D. Braithwaite rose, planted in an unprotected location just outside the vegetable garden, weathered the cold unscathed. It is now drenched in deep red blossoms against a background of reddish leaves. The variety Charlotte didn’t fare so well. It was killed to the ground, perhaps lower; I dug it up.
The variety Strawberry Hill suffered some dieback despite protection afforded by the south-facing brick wall of my house. I’m glad I didn’t trash this bush because it’s also now covered with blossoms — flat-topped cups of pink petals that emit a sweet, almost candy-like fragrance. Delicious!

And more good scents: Catalpa. Although native to a relatively small area in the Midwest, catalpa can now be found throughout the East and as far west as Utah. And it’s spreading.
But let me first backtrack to a few years ago at the local farmers’ market. One farmer had buckets filled with white blossoms that rivalled orchids. I looked and looked at them, trying to figure out what they were, then finally asked. I was embarrassed to learn that they were catalpa blossoms, which I’ve admired for decades but always from afar and with their surrounding cloaks of large leaves.
This year I decided to cut some blossoms, strip off the leaves, and put them in a vase. And that’s when their delectable scent was fully revealed.
By the time you read this, catalpa’s will have finished blossoming. Mark your calendars for next year.