PlantXing

The Intersection of Plants and People

The Frenzy for Wild Strawberries

In France, 'Reine des Vallees' (Queen of the Valley) is the standard in Europe for alpine strawberries, according to Michael Wellik. Image courtesy of Michael Wellik.

In France, ‘Reine des Vallees’ (Queen of the Valley) is the standard in Europe for alpine strawberries, according to Michael Wellik. Image courtesy of Michael Wellik.

“Everything is about bigger, better, faster,” says Michael Wellik, owner of The Strawberry Store and The Strawberry Seed Store, online shops that sell wild strawberry plants and seeds to homeowners, landscapers and commercial growers.

“I see the North American Strawberry Growers Association Call for Research every year and everything that they’re asking about is more shippable berries, larger shippable berries. They don’t even mention flavor.”

Wellik began growing strawberries as a greenhouse crop some thirty years ago, when he stumbled upon the wild alpine species Fragaria vesca, otherwise known as the fraise des bois that grows in the woodlands of Europe, northern America and northern Asia. Alpine strawberries have been cultivated by man for centuries, and Wellik lists 32 varieties of the Fragaria vesca species for sale on his website.

Other species grown at Wellik’s small farm in Delaware include Fragaria virginiana, an American native, and Fragaria moschata, the musk strawberry, found in the forests of Central Europe. According to Wellik, the musk strawberry was the center of a recent food frenzy after a clever British supermarket campaign dubbed them “bubbleberries,” advertising their flavor and intense aroma as reminiscent of bubblegum.

In a paper published this year by the Journal of Berry Research, German scientists Detlef Ulrich and Klaus Olbricht described wild strawberries as having “a higher aroma intensity compared with cultivated ones. The flavor quality differs significantly.”

Just thinking about buying hybrid strawberries at the grocery between growing seasons, Wellik recalls his sinking disappointment:

“It’s like eating cardboard.”

Researchers Ulrich and Olbricht might concur, writing that the wild strawberries “cause sensory impressions which normally are not associated with cultivated strawberries.”

The “cultivated” ones are the bigger, hybrid strawberries found in supermarkets around the world. Their ancestry has been traced to the early 1700’s when a French spy on a mission to Chile noticed (aside from his observations of military forts) the unusually large, wild strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis. He smuggled it back home on the return journey. In expert George M. Darrow’s 1966 tome on strawberries, science reporter D. Vivian Lee (who researched and wrote the chapters regarding the plant’s history) explains:

Amédée-François Frézier

Amédée-François Frézier, French spy and strawberry matchmaker.

“Through the initiative of this young man, the New World strawberry, already cultivated for many years by the Chilean Indians, was brought as a bride to France where her marriage to North American F. virginiana took place.”

The romance produced Fragaria X ananassa, whose descendants are bloated by comparison and who can tolerate being buffeted over thousands of miles as cargo. This is how growers in California — one of the largest producers of strawberries in the world — are able to ship the hybrids off to markets worldwide.

The original cross produced the ‘Pineberry’ variety, a pale, cream-colored fruit with reddish seeds, which gives the startling impression of viewing an old color photo negative of a modern strawberry. Pineberries, with their striking looks and pineapple-like flavor, have also been causing a sensation among gardeners looking for unusual heirloom varieties.

Wellik expresses some reservations about using the wild strawberries in modern breeding programs, however, because they can spread into natural environments, pushing out their undomesticated forebears.

“The hybrids tend to be, in many cases, more vigorous,” he explains. “And so you get some hybrids that come into the wild, into the prairies and the forests where the wild ones are common, and all of a sudden, they start pushing the natives out and taking over.”

A Growing Interest

Though diminutive when compared with their gigantic hybrid cousins, the wild varieties can offer surprisingly productive yields. In 2008, Wellik’s own farm studies showed that during a spring season, a single alpine strawberry plant could produce nearly a pound of fruit.

“That’s a lot of berries,” he says. “That’s like 700 berries, because they’re so small.”

In the U.S., the wild strawberries are not found in supermarkets or even most farmer’s markets. And though fraises des bois grown in coastal Spain and France can be imported, their delicate structure means alpines arrive by the pallet-load as mush. They must be harvested and eaten within the same 24 hours.

Fragaria vesca 'Pineapple Crush'

A pale-yellow Fragaria vesca variety, ‘Pineapple Crush’ is mostly ignored by birds, who prefer red strawberries. Image courtesy of Michael Wellik.

“The true, wild fraise des bois is impossible to market without exposing yourself to 75-percent losses,” Erwin Landivinec, told PlantXing via email. Landivinec is an executive at the imported produce division of Baldor Specialty Foods in New York, which supplies upscale East Coast markets and restaurants.

“The ‘real thing’ has been replaced by more resistant and manageable varieties,” he added.

Again, the taste is what sets the wild ones apart.

Landivinec, a native of Brittany, states that the hardier hybrids “do not have the true flavor of the wild ones, and if you ever have the chance to experience the taste of the wild ones, the flavor you will experience will stay visible on a form of a stain on your brain scan forever….”

Beyond flavor, wild strawberries also carry a sentimental and cultural allure. Wellik’s biggest customers are Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Shocked to discover that their beloved fresh delicacies are not available at U.S. stores, many decide to grow their own.

One of Wellik’s customers expressed to him how the strawberries are deeply ingrained in his life.

“He’s from Russia originally,” explains Wellik, “and he tells the story that his mother in Moscow requires that all the children come home in July no matter where they are in the world to help her pick wild strawberries in the forest so that she can make her annual jam.”

A few years ago, Wellik was approached by a U.S.-based Russian grocery store chain whose owners were considering growing fraise des bois to supply their eight stores. They had projected needing 40,000 pounds of strawberries a month, year-round, just to satisfy demand.

Acting as a consultant and supplier to growers, Wellik has successfully brought some awareness to the public about the advantages of what he calls “gourmet strawberries.” Perhaps due to some of Wellik’s many websites, (besides thestrawberrystore.com, he also owns alpinestrawberries.com, muskstrawberries.com, and so on) the wild varieties are garnering fans.

“The market is skyrocketing,” Wellik says. “I can’t supply all the orders…I just can’t handle any more.”

Fragaria vesca 'Reine des Vallees'

Wild strawberries are so delicate that they must be harvested and on the table within the same day. Image courtesy of Michael Wellik.

Wellik has seen an increase in both his seed and plant sales. Some perennial growers, landscapers and greenhouse operations are ordering about 20 to 50 grams of seed at a time. (One gram contains over 3,000 seeds.)

For those who don’t want to start from seed, Wellik takes custom orders and sows the seeds in trays of 51 plugs. “Plugs” are small plants grown in a sterile mix until strong enough for transplanting. For $49 per tray, Wellik’s prices are wholesale to everyone. Anyone lucky enough to come across the rare, farm-grown wild strawberries for sale can expect to pay up to U.S. $20 for a scant half-pint.

 Ingredients Other Than ‘Strawberry’?

Concerns over pesticides — used on conventionally grown strawberries in both the U.S. and abroad — are another driving factor in people purchasing wild varieties for their own gardens.

In April of this year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published its annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” The watchdog organization started the list to educate the American public about the dangers of pesticides to human health, filling an information gap it felt had been ignored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Number one on EWG’s 2014 “Dirty Dozen” list are apples. Tests revealed that apples carried the highest number of different pesticide residues of all the fruit EWG sampled from U.S. supermarkets. Strawberries are number two this year, with 13 different pesticides detected.

Researchers have linked exposure to pesticides with neurological damage, cancer and hormonal disruption. In 2012, The American Academy of Pediatricians voiced concerns over pesticides, issuing a report that confirmed the “unique susceptibilities” of children to toxic pesticides.

The uproar over pesticides may have rattled the California Strawberry Commission; they publicly teamed up with the Department of Pesticide Regulation in 2012. Together they have been researching ways to eliminate pesticide fumigants from strawberry farms. Two years later, a little more money has been thrown into the project, with the hope of discovering a cost-effective means of destroying soil-borne diseases that kill strawberry plants.

But when it comes to the pleasures of eating, people also want their healthy options to taste good. This July, the CLCV, an organization that protects consumers’ rights, conducted a taste survey of shoppers of strawberries from French supermarkets to see whether price had anything to do with flavor.

Less than half of the 1,050 participants (43 percent) were satisfied with the taste of the hybrid strawberries. Even more telling, 39 percent considered the strawberries to be “ni bon, ni mauvais” — “neither good nor bad” — not exactly a ringing endorsement.

People want strawberries that are more than super-sized, says Wellik.

“They don’t care what size the berries are, because if it has flavor, that’s what they’re interested in.”

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3 comments on “The Frenzy for Wild Strawberries

  1. ladynyo
    October 4, 2015

    Wonderful~! I came from New Jersey, Belle Mead actually, rural, and at the end of our horse pasture were wild strawberries. It’s been 50 years plus since I tasted them and I have never forgotten their marvelous flavor! This spring I am going to attempt to plant wild strawberries here in Atlanta, Ga. I am HAUNTED by their taste.

    Jane

    Like

    • Benita Green Lee
      October 4, 2015

      Jane – Thanks for your comment. Sounds like a wonderful memory, worth trying to reconstruct in Georgia! Michael Wellik of The Strawberry Store should be able to help you out as far as what might grow best in your area.

      Benita

      Like

      • ladynyo
        October 5, 2015

        Thank you, Benita! I will definitely contact Michael Wellik. Thanks, again.

        Like

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