Feisty Fragaria: The Wild Strawberry

By David Bellangue, Nursery Manager, Piedmont Discovery Center

Being an ecosystem dominated by warm-season grasses and wildflowers, Piedmont grasslands can look somewhat drab in early spring, especially when compared to the riot of color found in rich moist forests. In early spring these grasslands may have mere hints of green reaching up through last year’s tawny browns. At first glance there may be nary a flower in sight. But if you look more closely, you will be rewarded with the bright flashes of purple violets, the refreshing greens of cool season sedges, and the delicate white five-petalled flowers of the wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), along with many other subtle beauties. Resting on a bed of soft green trifoliate leaves, these white flowers will soon become the most delicate and delicious red berries. Fragaria virginiana is an important member of our grassland flora not only for its edible berries, but also for its adaptability to a wide range of growing conditions and its importance to numerous species of wildlife. 

Meet the Plant: 

A wild strawberry plant Credit: Emily Luebke

Scientific Name: [Fragaria virginiana] Genus name based on the Latin word for strawberry derived from fragans meaning fragrant in reference for the aromatic fruits. Species name means “of Virginia” (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Common name: Exact origin is unknown. One hypothesis is that it is from the corruption of the Old English word strewn-berry referring to either the nature of strawberries to spread via runners, resulting in plants being strewn about, or to the seeds that were strewn about on the surface of the fruit (Trinklein 2012). Another hypothesis is that it is named from the way European children (especially in Scandinavia) gather the fruit of the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca ssp. vesca) by stringing berries together on a piece of grass or straw (Fridell & Svanberg 2024).   

Family: Rose (Rosaceae)  –  Aside from the ornamental allure of the family’s namesake the rose (Rosa), numerous temperate fruits belong to this family including apples (Malus spp.), peaches, plums, and cherries (Prunus spp.), blackberries, loganberries, and raspberries (Rubus spp.) and the strawberry. The family contains both herbaceous and woody plants (though ¾ of genera contain woody plants) leaves usually alternate ranging from simple (ex. Prunus) to trifoliate (ex. Fragaria spp.), palmately compound (ex. Potential spp.) or pinnately compound (ex. Rosa). Flowers are radially symmetrical and almost always hermaphroditic (possessing both male and female reproductive structures), often showy, borne singly or in clusters usually with five petals and numerous stamens (Judd et al. 2016). 

A sampling of Rosaceae members native to Virginia.

Plant Description: Herbaceous cool-season perennial typically grows 4-7” (10.2-17.8 cm) tall and spreads indefinitely via runners. Plants bear trifoliate leaves with petioles usually covered in long soft hairs. 5-petaled white flowers in loose clusters. Flowers give way to achene-dotted ovoid fruits red upon maturing and are a choice edible (Weakley 2020). Being cool-season perennials, plants grow best in spring and fall and often go dormant once fruiting is done. 

Bloom time: April to May with fruit ripening in June.

Range and Habitat:

Distribution map for wild strawberry in the state of Virginia Credit: Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora, http://www.vaplantatlas.org

Wild strawberry grows across much of North America from Newfoundland to Alberta south to Georgia and Alabama in the east and Arizona and New Mexico in the west though absent from hot deserts and shortgrass prairies (Kartesz 2015). In Virginia, wild strawberries are common throughout the state growing mesic to dry upland forests, woodlands, and well-drained alluvial forests. However, they are much more characteristic of open sunny habitats including patch prairies, savannas, old fields and roadsides. They are not particular about soil chemistry, growing in both acidic and basic soils (Weakley 2020). In the past, wild strawberries were extremely abundant owing to the expanses of patch prairies, savannas, and woodlands maintained through large herbivore grazing and frequent fires set by Indigenous peoples; declined in abundance with the reduction of open habitat resulting from a combination of fire suppression and invasive tree and shrub encroachment.        

Reproduction: 

Seed: Fruits are very attractive to a wide range of wildlife, especially birds, that spread the seeds in their droppings. To propagate from seed, mash ripe fruit and allow the mush to soften in water for a week before rinsing to separate the pulp from the seeds. Cleaned seeds, sown in the fall to undergo 2-3 months of cold stratification, will germinate in the spring (Ciercko 2008); viability and germination may be low since reproduction via runners is so reliable. 

Vegetative: One of the most fascinating aspects of wild strawberries is its propensity to reproduce clonally via runners. These runners are stolons which are elongated stems that produce plantlets at several nodes. Where these nodes contact the ground, adventitious roots (roots produced from non-root tissue in response to environmental conditions) grow, anchoring the plantlet in the soil. Once established, the runner withers away leaving two independent plants (Erik 2018). Via runners, wild strawberries can form large colonies over time spreading indefinitely in all directions which makes it an excellent native ground cover for sunny areas. This trait is also useful when producing a large number of plants for restorations. 

Runner development on a wild strawberry. Credit: author

Runner-produced plantlets makes producing wild strawberries for restoration a simple task. Credit: author

Look-alikes 

Worldwide there are over 20 species of strawberries with a majority native to Asia (Hummer 2011). In Virginia, there are several plant species that look similar to wild strawberries. One is its close relative the woodland strawberry (Fragaria americana) but this species is rare in Virginia and is found primarily in dry rock woodlands and boulder fields in the mountains. Woodland strawberry can be distinguished from wild strawberry by the fact that the tooth at the very tip of the leaflet is equal or slightly larger in size to the two adjacent teeth and on the “berry” the achenes (dry, non-splitting fruits usually one-seeded) are flush to the surface. Compared to wild strawberries where the terminal leaflet tooth is smaller than the adjacent teeth and the achenes that are sunken into shallow pits (Weakley 2020). 

Wild strawberry leaf tip and fruit. Note the tooth at the very tip of the leaflet much smaller than the adjacent teeth and the achenes in shallow pits on the fruit. Credit: CUH

The fruit of European woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca ssp. vesca) note the achenes located on the surface of the fruit, not in shallow pits. Credit: Björn S, Flickr

There are two other look-alikes worth mentioning which are the non-native mock strawberry (Potentilla indica) and the native barren-strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides). While at a glance they look similar to wild strawberries, both have yellow flowers and their fruits are rather dry. While the mock-strawberry is technically edible, its fruits are bland and are not a choice fruit especially when compared to wild strawberries (As a child, I was fooled by these plants into thinking all wild strawberries had no flavor!). 

Plant of the native barren-strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) note the yellow-flowers and teeth only along the leaflet tip. Credit: Superior National Forest, Flickr

Mock or false strawberry (Potentilla indica), a common non-native plant originally from south and east Asia. Fruit is considerably less flavorful than wild strawberries. Credit: Andreas Rockstein, Flickr and John Tann, Flickr

Wildlife connections: 

Rose miner Bee (Andrena melanochroa) visiting a strawberry flower. These bees visit only strawberries and a few other plants in the rose family. 

For wildlife connections, I will pull an excerpt from the excellent “Illustrated Flora of the Piedmont” series which can be found at the Center for Urban Habitats website by going to the Portfolio tab and clicking on the “Education and Publication” section. Needless to say, the ecological value of wild strawberries is quite high (Hilty 2018). 

Visit to a strawberry flower by possibly a sweat bee (Lasioglossum spp.)

Fragaria virginiana pollen supports many bees including bumblebees, cuckoo bees, and mason bees, but it is vital for the little Andrena melanochroa (rose miner bee) who will only forage from this and a few other plants in the Rosaceae family. Flies that love strawberry nectar include syrphid flies, tachinid flies, and bottle flies. Caterpillars of the rare and imperiled butterfly, the Appalachian grizzled skipper (Pyrgus centaureae wyandot), feed exclusively on this plant or closely related common cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis). Other insect feeders include the strawberry flea beetle (Altica ignita), the strawberry sap beetle (Stelidota geminata), and the strawberry aphid (Chaetosiphon fragaefolii). Several birds enjoy the fruits, including the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), and veery (Catharus fuscescens). Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) are glad for the treat if they manage to beat the birds! Eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) are very fond of the foliage.” 

Works Cited

Ciecko, Lisa. Plant Propagation Protocol for Fragaria Virginiana. 15 Apr. 2008, pp. 1–8, courses.washington.edu/esrm412/protocols/2008/FRVI.pdf. Accessed 20 Mar. 2024.

Erik . “What Are Strawberry Runners? (Stolons) – Strawberry Plants . Org.” Strawberry Plants . Org, 6 June 2018, strawberryplants.org/what-are-strawberry-runners-stolons/

“Fragaria Virginiana – Plant Finder.” Missouri Botanical Garden , www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=291715&isprofile=1&basic=fragaria%20virginiana. Accessed 17 Mar. 2024.

Hilty, John. “Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Virginiana).” Illinois Wildflowers, 24 Oct. 2018, www.illinoiswildflowers.info/prairie/plantx/wld_strawberryx.htm

Hummer, Kim, et al. “Fragaria.” Wild Crop Relatives: Genomic and Breeding Resources Temperate Fruits, edited by Chittaranjan Kole, New York, Springer, 2011, pp. 17–44.

Judd, W.S, Campbell, C.S, Kellogg, E.A, Stevens, P.F, & Donoghue, M.J, (2016). Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach. (4th ed.) Sinauer Associates Inc.

Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. (http://bonap.net/napa). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2015. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]. 

Staffan Fridell & Ingvar Svanberg (25 Mar 2024): On the etymology of strawberry, Studia Neophilologica, DOI: 10.1080/00393274.2024.2329185 

Trinklein, David. “Strawberry: A Brief History (David Trinklein).” Ipm.missouri.edu, 21 May 2012, ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2012/5/Strawberry-A-Brief-History/.

Weakley, A.S., J.C. Ludwig, J.F. Townsend, and G.P. Fleming. (2020). Flora of Virginia. With significant additions and updates. Bland Crowder, ed. Mobile app. Foundation of the Flora of Virginia Project Inc., Richmond, and High Country Apps, Bozeman, Montana.