This morning I asked a few friends this question: ” What do you think of when I say the words wild strawberries?“
”Pat and Pam both thought of the Ingmar Bergman film of the same name.
”It sounds like the name for a girl band”, said John.
Josip and Ulla said it reminded them of their respective childhoods in Bosnia and Denmark.
Josip collected wild strawberries in an open glade of the woods above his Bosnian home of Banja Luka. Accompanied by his brother, mother and baka (grandmother), they collected vast bounties in a glass jar in the heat of high summer. Once a snake startled them foraging and they avoided that particular patch the next summer! The wild strawberries served at home were mashed and mixed with whipped cream.
The wild strawberries in Ulla’s Danish childhood summer home in Dragør never made it to the table or in a dessert. They were eaten first thing in the morning with the dew still on them. The intense flavor of the tiny fruit is what she remembers most. Had any wild strawberries been spared these dawn raids, she says they would have been incorporated into a dish of raspberries and red currants called rodgrod med flode.
What got me started thinking about wild strawberries was the discovery yesterday of a crop of tiny delicious gems in the wild strawberry patch we have in our garden in San Francisco. We have two strawberry beds. The bed of the garden strawberry Fragaria ananassa produces a prolific crop of the kind of large strawberries that makes you think of the Fourth of July and strawberry shortcake. The bank of wild strawberries Fragaria vesca produces small fruit of intense flavor. Like Ulla’s Danish garden, we savor these wild strawberries directly off the plant as soon as they ripen.
Growing in open woodland glades, I have tried to create a situation in my garden which replicates where the wild strawberry grows naturally. The soil is somewhat acidic and well drained. The site has full sun during the day, and dappled shade in the late afternoon. I have planted the wild strawberries next to the garden bench so friends could discover a “taste sensation” as they sit and enjoy.
It is important that one does not plant the mock strawberry Potentilla indica. Invasive in many states, this noxious plant has similar leaves to the true strawberry (fragaria sp.), but not its habits or flavorful fruit.
I love taking hikes along the northern California coast, not only for its natural beauty, but to see native plants that are available in plant nurseries in their natural situation. The California native beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis does not have very sweet berries, but is an excellent ground cover for the coastal home garden . Shown in the image above growing in its native habitat near the coast in August, one can see that this is an aggressive species. Spreading by a web of interlocking runners, the beach strawberry stabilizes the soil and prevents shifting dunes and erosion. Notice how green this plant is even after months of drought. The coastal fog provides enough moisture for the soil under the dense plant cover. A large area would be wanted if one were to plant this, with full sun and sandy soil.
As with Ulla and Josip the wild strawberry brings back memories for many people of summers past, of childhood innocence and hopes. Psychological associations and emotions of loss and regret are intertwined, too, in a plant that evokes such strong recollections. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Smultronstallet or Wild Strawberries, an aging professor returns to his old home and in a dreamscape of memory re-lives his young love, Sara, collecting wild strawberries. He watches in dismay as Sara encounters his brother Sigfrid whom she kisses fervently, spilling the wild strawberries in their passion.
Wild strawberries can evoke yearnings for idealized rusticity, for the pastoral. In the 1898 Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth Von Arnim describes her fastasy cottage in a glade of the Hirschwald:
I know the exact spot where it should stand, facing south-east, so that we could get all the cheerfullness of the morning, and close to the stream that we may wash our plates. Sometimes, when in the mood for society, we would invite the remaining babies to tea and entertain them with wild strawberries on horse-chestnut leaves. But no one less innocent or easily pleased as a baby would be permitted to darken the effulgence of our cottage- indeed I don’t suppose anyone wiser would care to come. Wise people want so many things before they can enjoy themselves, and I feel perpetually apologetic when I am with them for only being able to offer them that which I love best myself- apologetic, and ashamed of being so easily contented.
The 1904 essay, Strawberries by John Burroughs captures the delight of this plant, and its nostalgic appeal:
Lives the country boy who does not like wild strawberries and milk,-yea, prefer it to any known dish? I am not thinking about a dessert of strawberries and cream, but bread and milk with the addition of wild strawberries is perculiarly a country dish, and is to the taste what wild birdsong is to the ear. When I was a lad and went afield with my hoe or with the cows during the strawberry season, I was sure to return at mealtime with a lining of berries on the top of my straw hat. They were my daily food and I could taste the liquid gurgling notes of the Bobolink in every spoonful of them; and to this day to make a dinner or supper of a bowl of milk with bread and strawberries-plenty of strawberries, well is as near to being a boy again as I ever expect to come.
What comes to your mind when you think of wild strawberries?