A Cook's Garden

Alpine Strawberry, Small Wonder

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Even in an age of super-sizing, our taste buds are not fooled, and food lovers still go to great lengths for small, exquisite bites. Perishable fruits such as raspberries, wild blueberries and figs are treasured when they are in season. If hand-picking raises the price, many are still happy to pay.

This would surely be the case with alpine strawberries if they appeared in markets at all, but rarely is this delicacy sold. Also called fraises des bois , these little jewels aren't much larger than your smallest fingernail, but the intensity of their flavor puts a normal strawberry to shame. When harvested completely ripe -- as they always must be -- they have a complexity not unlike the flavor journey that a superior wine takes between sip and swallow. As with fine melons, their seductive aroma plays a big part, too.

Look for them in medieval paintings and tapestries, growing at the feet of a unicorn or a maiden in a flowery meadow. Picture legions of serfs combing the fields for them, to be set before an Austrian baron or French king. Imagine Victorian gardeners tending them for her Ladyship's breakfast, served with clotted cream. The alpine species, Fragaria vesca , is a bit plumper and more elongated than some other wild types, but still a far cry from the modern strawberry, which was bred in 18th-century Europe by crossing the American wild strawberry with a Chilean one. The alpines' lower chromosome count makes them difficult to cross with anything. As a result, their flavor has never been sacrificed to size. They barely exist outside the magic kingdom of the home garden, a place where delicious crops can be grown that make no sense anywhere else.

Henry A. Wallace, at various times Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, vice president and secretary of commerce, poignantly lamented this favorite fruit's lack of economic potential, along with that of the intriguing musk strawberry ( F. moschata ), which Roosevelt especially loved. "I am sure," Wallace wrote, "that the very practical and very successful strawberry growers of California will never fool with either of the two wild European strawberries." Yet Wallace confessed a romantic attachment to both, and did breeding work on them during his retirement years in South Salem, N.Y.

There are a number of alpine strawberry varieties for which you can buy seed -- all much the same, says Lee Reich, author of "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden," who has grown them all. Of the two basic types -- red and white, the latter often described as "yellow" -- the whites have a hint of pineapple, and are less obvious to thieving birds. Reich, like Roosevelt, gives the larger and rarer musk the prize for flavor. Those I have yet to try, but the alpines have become a sort of garden totem for me. The small, upright plants don't send out runners the way standard ones do, and there are no complicated systems for managing them. Purchased plants can be expensive and it is more rewarding to grow them from seed, even though germination is erratic and the seeds are smaller than fairy dust. Press them lightly into the soil surface, and germinate them in darkness at about 65 or 70 degrees. Watering the flat from the bottom works best, with a vented plastic cover to keep moisture in. After being transplanted they can either remain in individual pots or be set out in the garden after danger of frost.

The best part is that the plants are hardy perennials and will thrive for years. Seeds sown now will produce full-size plants this summer, and a small crop of berries. Next year, if well watered, they'll bear from late spring until hard frost. Volunteer seedlings will pop up here and there; you can transplant these to fill in for old ones that have declined in productivity. Large clumps can be divided. They like rich, well-drained soil with ample organic matter. They'll take more shade than standard strawberries, but you'll need to water in dry weather to keep production going. A mulch helps keep the soil moist and the berries clean.

Since the plants are so beautiful -- tidy clumps perpetually covered with both white flowers and tiny fruits -- they often are used as a decorative touch, the perfect edging for an herb garden or flower bed. But I also consider them a food crop, even if all I harvest is a handful of berries a day. One handful is ample for sprinkling over a whipped-cream-topped pie. A dozen, fresh-picked and sprinkled over vanilla ice cream, amounts to a gourmet dessert that money just can't buy.

Sources: Alpine strawberry plants, both red and white, Papa Geno's Herb Farm,http://www.papagenos.com, 402-794-0400. For seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds,http://www.superseeds.com, 207-926-3400. Musk strawberry plants, Raintree Nursery,http://www.raintreenursery.com, 360-496-6400.

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