Know Your Natives – Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is an evergreen plant which produces scarlet strawberries* with achenes embedded in pits. The genus name derives from the Latin word “fragum” in reference to the fragrance of mature strawberries. The specific epithet refers to the state from which the species was originally collected and described. The common name probably originates from the word “strew” in reference to the tangle of ground-hugging stems. In the eastern U.S., Wild Strawberry occurs in a large area roughly bounded by a line from North Dakota to Maine (extending into Alberta and Newfoundland, Canada), along the Atlantic Coast to the Florida Panhandle, across to eastern Texas and back to North Dakota. Also, it occurs in large disjunct areas of western U.S. In Arkansas, it occurs in the Ozark Plateaus, River Valley and Ouachita Mountains, along with widely scattered occurrences in the Gulf Coastal and Mississippi Alluvial Plains. Other common names include Common Strawberry, Scarlet Strawberry and Virginia Strawberry. Habitats include dry to mesic soils in sunny to partially shaded sites such as prairies, woodland borders, glades and rights-of-way. Some authorities have divided this species into various subspecies or varieties.**

Related to the cultivated strawberry***, Wild Strawberry is a low-growing, herbaceous, colonial species with stoloniferous stems. Stems appear at the same time as the inflorescence in mid-spring and continue to grow into late-spring. The several, ground-hugging stems of a mature plant radiate from the parent plant as they maneuver through their surroundings, often lodging in crevices. The slender, rather limp (but tough) stems (to 3 feet long) have widely spaced nodes bearing bracts, leafy bracts and leaves – – stems otherwise naked. Stems, terete along their internodes, have dense spreading (set at 90⁰ to stem) pubescence. The first node (which may be 1+ foot from the parent plant) may produce a secondary stem which may develop in the same manner as a primary stem. As stems elongate to their second node (then at stem tip), the node is bent down to the soil. New leaves rise at the node and roots anchor a new plantlet. As the stem lengthens with additional nodes, those nodes that may produce a secondary stem alternate with nodes that bear plantlets. The internode segments between two “plantlet nodes” arch above the soil so that any secondary stems are elevated and the next plantlet-node is again positioned at the soil level. In sunlight, young stems change from pale green to reddish. Stems remain viable into early winter, remaining persistent into spring.

Photo 1: As shown, stem is 12 inches long with an additional 7½ inches cut-off at lower right (at white asterisk; black arrows show former attachment of this stem segment). First node bears a 2-leaflet leaf and second node bears a plantlet. A third node (leaf-bearing) and growing stem terminus is at upper left. Photo – April 27.
Photo 2: As this plantlet produced roots, the lower stem continued to grow toward the left. A secondary stem, can be seen on the upper stem (arrow), also growing to the left. The stem to right of plantlet is arched. Photo – April 24.
Photo 3: These several plants were plantlets during the previous spring. Their originating stems, now dead, can be seen. Photo – March 3.

Plants that are several years old develop a stubby, vertical rhizome with an apical crown composed of several growth-points of varying sizes. Each growth-point produces a tight cluster of leaves with larger leaf clusters potentially including a stem and/or flower stalk, just off-center. Upper portion of older rhizomes is covered by bases of current year’s leaves while the lower portion is covered by persistent leaf bases from earlier leaves and remnants of old stems. Two-year-old plants seem to be most productive of stems and flower stalks; plants seeming to deteriorate after their third year. Thick clonal colonies may form. With summertime soil drying and heat, plants often become dormant.

Photo 4: Over winter, plants develop new roots along previous year’s rhizome-growth. Plant at left is approaching its first spring. Plant at right has an inch-long rhizome with 4-inch roots. Newly developing leaves can be seen on right. Photo – February 7.

At mid-spring, a mature plant may have a dozen basal leaves of varying sizes. The reddish overwintering basal leaves are relatively small, flat on the ground and fade as springtime leaves appear. Ascending springtime leaves are considerably larger and with largest leaves being present during flowering and fruiting. Largest leaves may reach 13 inches long (including a 9-inch petiole) with a compound blade that is 4 inches long and 3¾ inches wide. Leaflets are to 3¾ inch long and 2½ inch wide on short petiolules. Springtime leaves have a shiny, medium green upper surface and a dull, pale green lower surface.

Photo 5: Rhizomes are stubby and vertical. Crown of this plant, with two growth points, produced two floral stalks and two stems. Overwintering leaves die as springtime leaves develop. Photo – April 24.

Basal leaves are trifoliate compound. The terminal leaflet and the lateral pair of leaflets, all three of similar size and shape, are obovate to elliptic with wedge-shaped (cuneate) bases and broad rounded apices. Bases of lateral leaflets are oblique. Well-spaced, prominent pinnate secondary veins (set at 30⁰ off midrib) are finely recessed above and expressed below. Secondary veins, evenly spaced and parallel, extend to mucronate tips of prominent triangular teeth along the side margins. The midvein terminates in an apical tooth which is half as wide and smaller than the marginal teeth. Although widely variable, upper and lower blade surfaces generally have spreading to appressed pubescence; that of the lower surface being denser and longer, especially along veins. The slender, long to very long, straight petioles and stubby petiolules are densely pubescent with spreading hairs. Petioles, terete along most of their lengths, have winged bases that serve to position and protect subsequently emerging leaves. The winged bases have pinkish, free-standing, lanceolate apices. These bases are to about 1¼ inches long, of which about ¾ inch is free-standing above the soil.

Photo 6: Female plants are shown. Floral / fruiting stems are positioned below tall basal leaves. Photo – May 16.
Photo 7: Functionally male plants are shown (see Photo 15 for related information). Photo – April 13.
Photo 8: Pubescent petioles of overwintering basal leaves are short as compared to petioles of springtime leaves. The free-standing lanceolate apices of the basal leaves’ winged bases can be seen (pink). This male plant is past bloom stage. Photo – March 22.
Photo 9: This overwintering basal leaf has retained its pubescence. Hairs along petioles are spreading and those of the upper leaf surface are appressed. Photo – February 12.
Photo 10: Pubescence on upper surface of this springtime leaflet is not apparent. Note parallel-pinnate venation, mucronate marginal teeth and smaller tooth terminating midvein. Color is a shiny, medium green. Venation is recessed. Photo – April 16.
Photo 11: Pubescence on lower surface of this springtime leaflet is spreading along the petiolule while that on the blade is appressed. Color is a dull, pale green. Venation is expressed. Photo – April 16.

The April inflorescence develops at same time as when stems begin to grow. The inflorescence, originating just off-center of a current-year leaf cluster, consists of a floral stem bearing to 12+ flowers in a compound umbel. Of a 6-7-inch long inflorescence, about 4¾ inches would be the naked stalk. The stalk is topped by a two-bracted-node from which several small floral leaves and an umbel of 2-4 erect peduncles (to 1½ inches long) emerge. Peduncles, in turn, are topped by a smaller two-bracted-node from which several simple floral leaves and an umbel of 2-5 weak pedicels (to 1½ inches long) emerge. The bracts subtending the peduncle-umbel are obovate while those subtending pedicel-umbel are lanceolate. Additional small lanceolate bracts may occur at the base or along pedicels. The terete stems, peduncles and pedicels are light green and densely pubescent. Floral bracts are slightly pubescent on their exterior and glabrous on their interior. Floral stems of female and male plants have the same structure.

Floral leaves may be compound with 2 leaflets or simple with serrated margins or simple with entire margins. Leaf size and complexity decrease distally. Floral leaves have the same color, texture and pubescence as basal leaves. Smaller floral leaves become entire and lose marginal teeth. When a leaf is serrate, the apical tooth and marginal teeth are the same size. (See a floral stem in Photo 16.)

Photo 12: Floral leaves are mostly simple, becoming smaller and entire (lacking teeth) distally. Of the serrated floral leaflets or leaves, the apical tooth is equal to or larger than the marginal teeth. Color and texture are similar to that of basal leaves. (see Photo 16) Photo – April 21.

Flowers have 5 petals, 20+ stamens (filaments + anthers) and numerous pistils (ovary + style + stigma) covering a domed receptacle. Flowers are male (staminate), female (pistillate) or appear to be perfect (with stamens and pistils) but are functionally staminate. Flowers, ½ – ¾ inch across, have 5 broadly lanceolate sepals interspersed with 5 lanceolate sepal-like bracts united at their bases. In bud, sepals cling to the bud while bracts are ascending. At anthesis, the pale green sepals and bracts form a single layer that is calyx-like. Sepals are positioned between the overlapped petals and bracts. Sepals and bracts are slightly pubescent on both sides. The elongate yellow anthers stand upright on tips of lighter yellow filaments. Styles are tipped with slightly spreading stigmas, both the same color as the filaments. The white petals, which may slightly overlap or be separated, have an obovate upper portion that quickly reduce to a clawed base. The stamens and pistils rise slightly above the petals’ clawed bases with pistils being shorter.

Photo 13: This emerging inflorescence is atop a 4⅞-inch stalk (not shown). Sepals and interspersed floral bracts, united at their bases, can be seen at various stages of flower development. Flower is an inch wide. Photo – April 16.

Photo 14: Receptacles of female flowers are covered with numerous pistils. With weak pedicels, flowers dangle. Photo – April 10.
Photo 15: Flowers from this colony are perfect (with stamens and stigmas). However, the colony has not produced fruits although nearby female plants did (see Photo 17), indicating that flowers of this colony are functionally male. Photo – April 3.
Photo 16: This post-bloom male floral stem bears 2 peduncles (in umbel style), each topped with pedicels (in umbel style). Pedicels bear a single flower. Simple floral leaves and paired bracts can be seen at the base of umbels and along some pedicels. Photo – April 21.

Fertilized pistillate flowers produce fruits (achenes) that are embedded into strawberries maturing in May. Early whitish green strawberries mature to shiny scarlet with the exposed achenes. The ovoid to globoid strawberries are to ½ to ¾ inch long and wide. The calyx of sepals and bracts become appressed to the mature strawberry. Wild Strawberry is said to have a sweeter taste than cultivated strawberries. Year-to-year fruiting success is variable.

Photo 17: Early whitish green strawberries become scarlet with maturity. Fruits (achenes) are embedded. Fruiting success is variable from year-to-year depending on weather conditions. Photo – May 7.
Photo 18: Calyxes are appressed against the strawberries. The tasty strawberries are relished by small mammals (and humans). Squares = ¼ inch. Photo – May 12.

In a sunny to partially sunny garden with well drained mesic soils, Wild Strawberries would add textural variety and provide enjoyment while a person searches for the showy flowers and strawberries. It has active growth from late winter into mid-spring, but small basal leaves remain throughout the winter. Annual flowering can be expected but appearance of strawberries is affected by weather conditions. Being a cool-season plant, it can compete with taller herbaceous plants. A gardener needs to be aware of the plant’s reputation for clonal spreading; however, in a small area, timely removal of stems would restrict clonal spread. Excellent as a ground cover or for erosion control and suitable for naturalizing. Foliage, flowers and fruits are of high ecological value for insects, animals and birds. Fruits (achenes) are dispersed by animals and birds that consume the strawberries.

Wild Strawberry is the only wild species of the genus known in Arkansas. Other “strawberries” which might be encountered are 1) the non-native Indian-Strawberry (Duchesnea indica), whose common name refers to the country of India, and 2) Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), a plant of conservation concern. Indian-Strawberry can be distinguished by its yellow flowers, having achenes that are not embedded in its scarlet strawberries and floral bracts that are 3-lobed. Barren Strawberry is a ground-cover plant with spreading, shallow, underground rhizomes, very short petioles, yellow flowers and heads of 2-6 dry seeds without an enlarged receptacle.

*Botanically, strawberries, which are not actual berries and not technically the fruit, are referred to as “aggregate accessory fruits”. Examples of true berries are dewberries and blackberries which have achenes immersed in pulp. The fruits of Wild Strawberry are the achenes which are embedded on the outside of the accessory fruit.

**This species has considerable variation in pubescence on petioles, peduncles, pedicels, and stems. Four subspecies/varieties are based on: 1) whether pubescence is ascending, appressed or appressed-ascending and 2) if hairs are visible to the naked eye. Other authorities (including Arkansas) treat these variations as a continuum within the species.

***In 1766, Antoine Nicolas Duchesne documented successful crossing of Wild Strawberry and Chilean/Coastal Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) to create the cultivated strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa) with its larger flowers and larger, sweet strawberries.

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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