Synonyms: Alpine strawberry, European strawberry, woodland strawberry, wood strawberry
Scientific Name: Fragaria vesca L.
Family: Rosaceae (Rose Family)
Europe and North Asia.
Tannins, especially in the roots and in older leaves; vitamin C, especially in the fruit; flavonoids; important minerals, e.g. iron.
The fruits of this member of the rose family are little miracles of flavour. Anyone wishing to try them can easily grow a plant on a balcony or in the garden, or can look for them in open woods or on grassy banks. The herbaceous perennial grows as a rosette, reaching a height of 20 centimetres, and forms runners with joints from which new plants grow. Leaves, flowers and fruit all look very much like the strawberries familiar to us from fruit shops, but are much, much smaller. The strawberries can reach a good centimetre in size – but their flavour is incomparably intense. Incidentally, the strawberries we enjoy so much are what we call accessory fruits. Their flesh develops from the receptacles of pollinated flowers that open in May or June and in sunny locations continue to flower until the first frosts come. The actual fruits are the little pips, known as achenes, which sit on the accessory fruit. Because strawberries consist of many achenes, botanists call them aggregate fruits. In contrast to the golden achenes of the garden strawberry, the achenes of the wild strawberry are coloured red. This red colouring attracts all sorts of animals, which enjoy the fruit as much as we do. Fox, badger, squirrel, hedgehog, vole and dormouse, as well as birds of all kinds, snails and insects, excrete the indigestible achenes after consumption and thus contribute to dispersal of the wild strawberry.
A tea brewed from the tannin-rich leaves of the strawberry is used as a gargle to treat inflamed mucous membranes. As a beverage the tea alleviates gastrointestinal complaints, especially with diarrhoea, and supplies iron which supports the treatment of anaemia. In combination with vine leaves, strawberry leaves improve liver and gallbladder function. Sebastian Kneipp (1821–1897) recommended strawberry leaf tea as a drink for sickly children. Ripe wild strawberries are extremely rich in vitamin C. In homoeopathy the potentised fruits are used to treat nettle rash, digestive weakness and circulatory disorders.
The scientific name Fragaria is derived from the Latin fragare = to be fragrant. The epithet vesca means edible. The common name strawberry does not come from the practice of laying straw under cultivated plants, as one might think. It may refer to the appearance of the achenes, which look like bits of straw scattered on the fruit; or it may refer to the straw-like appearance of the runners covering the ground. Another possibility is that it comes from an old form of the verb 'strew', because the runners are strewn on the ground in a tangle.
The wild strawberry is not the wild form of our garden strawberry (Fragaria × ananassa). The garden strawberry was bred by crossing two species native to America: the Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), which was striking for its large fruits, and the scarlet Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana). Hybridisation trials were carried out in European gardens between 1714 and 1759, with the aim of obtaining frost-resistant strawberry plants with larger fruits than those borne by the wild strawberry. From the 14th century it was the wild strawberry that was cultivated over large areas. But wild strawberries have been on the menu of human beings since the New Stone Age, as archaeological finds confirm. With the advent of the garden strawberry, gardeners started to neglect the wild form. It has now returned to gardens in the form of a hybrid created by crossing the garden strawberry with the wild strawberry.
When boiled, the red achenes of the wild strawberry develop a bitter substance that gives jams made from the little fruits a slightly bitter taste.
In art history, the strawberry often signified humility and modesty, especially in depictions of Maria and Jesus. Ovid described the fruit as a food of the Golden Age, the primordial phase of humankind conceived of as the ideal state, in which human beings lived in peace with one another and embedded in Nature.
Germanic mythology ascribed the wild strawberry to the goddess Frigga, wife of Odin and patroness of marriage and motherhood. She is supposed to have hidden children who died in strawberries in order to take them undiscovered to Valhalla, the resting place of fallen brave warriors. Christianity adopted this image for Maria, who according to some legends is supposed to come down from heaven to earth once a year to pick strawberries for children who have died and gone to paradise. In their fairy tale “The Three Little Men in the Woods”, the Brothers Grimm told of another connection between child and strawberry. In this tale the wicked stepmother clothes her hated stepdaughter in a dress of paper and sends her into the woods in the middle of a cold winter to pick strawberries. On her hopeless errand she stumbles on the hut of the three little men, with whom she shares her meagre bread. Out of gratitude they conjure ripe strawberries for her and grant her three wishes: gold coins that fall out of her mouth with every word; increasing beauty, and a prince who will marry her. This is a fairy tale – of course all her wishes are fulfilled; while the wicked stepmother and her mean daughter, who haughtily deny the three little men any favours, do not escape their just punishment.