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

Uncommon But Uncommonly Delicious

Some (Only) Like It Cooked

Before the black currant (Ribes nigrum) season totally winds down, I suggest you try to get a taste of the fresh berries. Do so if you’ve never tasted them. And do so even if you have tasted them and found them bad tasting.

Why taste them if you haven’t? Because if you end up liking them, they’re easy to grow and nutritious — super-rich in vitamin C (2 to 3 times as much as oranges) and other goodies.

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

Deer don’t particularly like the very aromatic stems and leaves, and birds — even my ducks — ignore the berries. They are among the few berries that thrive and bear well even in some shade. They have few insect or disease problems.

And the berries taste good, very good, some varieties better than others. My “currant” favorites are the varieties Belaruskaja and Titania, either of which I recommend tasting if you’ve previously had a bad gustatory experience with black currants.

Then again, black currants have a strong flavor. Not everyone has to like them. What Liberty Hyde Bailey, the “father of American horticulture,” wrote about apples in 1922 would apply equally well to kinds and varieties of fruits, including black currants: “Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes.“

Then again — again — just about everybody likes black currants concocted into a jam, a pie, a syrup, or an alcoholic drink (as in casis). I like mine straight up, fresh in summer, frozen and defrosted in winter.

They Were Against the Law!!

You may have heard of some disease to which black currants, and red currants and gooseberries, are prone, and was responsible for their being illegal to grow. The disease is white pine blister rust, a fungal disease that needs two different plant hosts to survive. One host is white pine, a common forest tree. And the other is a susceptible species of Ribes, which includes currants and gooseberries.

White pine blister rust disease entered the U.S. from Europe in the early 20th century. Because white pine was such an important timber crop, a federal ban was enacted to control the disease that not only made it illegal to plant currants and gooseberries, but also sent crews scouring forests and gardens from which to rip plants out of the ground.

Alas, the ban was not very effective. Wild plants were everywhere; when conditions were suitable, disease spores could be carried hundreds of miles. And cultivated varieties of gooseberries and currants proved not to be very susceptible to the disease. The federal ban was lifted in the 1960s.

Black currants were definitely a culprit, but in the latter half of the 20th century, three varieties were bred in Canada that were immune to the disease. I grew one of them, the variety Consort, and thought it tasted good. Other people disagreed. 

A number of other varieties have since been developed that are resistant to the disease. The previously mentioned Belaruskaja and Titania are among them. I dug up my Consort plants years ago and put in Belaruskaja and Titania, and now have to share my berries.

Small Berry, Powerfully Good Flavor

I hope everyone else is enjoying at least some home-grown berries this time of year as much as I am. Berries generally are easy to grow and taste much, much, much better backyard grown than purchased because you can grow the best of them and pick them when dead ripe.

Perhaps the most perishable — and one of the most delicious — berry is the alpine strawberry. They’re a different species from common strawberries (Fragaria vesca rather than F. X ananassa).

White and red alpine strawberries

White and red alpine strawberries

They’re also quite small, with big ones about the size of a nickel. But they pack a lot of flavor and fragrance into that small package, and do so all summer long.

Problem is that birds eat the berries as soon as they’re just beginning to blush. If picked then, the flavor is akin to cotton soaked in lemon juice. Flavor and aroma don’t develop until they’re dead ripe.

So I grow WHITE alpine strawberries. Birds don’t see them and I can wait until they turn a creamy white color and the seeds darken.

3 pots of white alpine strawberries

Alpine strawberries also fruit well in pots

At that point of ripeness, the berries are very, very soft, not something that could be picked for later sale, let alone shipping. Everybody who has tastes them exclaims “wow,” or something similar.

(If you’re hungry for more growing and historical details, alpine strawberries and black currants each get a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)


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.