It’s difficult to start writing about alpine strawberries without straight away making comparisons with the regular, hybrid strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa), but try to put the big brother out of your mind for a moment. Alpine strawberries are different: the taste is different, the growing requirements are different, the season is different. Alpine and hybrid strawberries are not alternatives to each other, they are simply different crops.
Essentially, alpine strawberry is wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca), but with one crucial distinction. You may have come across wild strawberries when out on a walk: shy, elusive creatures, they tend to peek out from between other plants so the pleasure of their fruit has much to do with the thrill of the hunt. When you do find one though, the reward is sweet – and bursting with intense flavour. The temptation to try to transfer the experience to the more reliable setting of the garden is overwhelming, but the results are mostly disappointing. Adapted to scrambling around in a Darwinian tangled bank, show a wild strawberry a piece of ground all of its own and it tends to go a bit, er, wild. Fruiting is forgotten as they send out a thicket of runners in all directions and you realise that you have created a monster.
Alpine strawberries are simply wild strawberries that don’t produce runners, but from this small change a number of differences flow. Because they don’t put their resources into vegetative reproduction, all their energy can be channeled into fruiting. The alpine strawberry season usually starts around May or June and lasts through to the first frosts. They are also much better behaved in the garden, forming neat little mounds about a foot in diameter that are very useful for lining paths so that you can browse your way along.
Finally, they are much easier to breed from seed. It’s not that wild strawberries won’t grow from seed, but since one clone will fill an entire bed it’s much harder to do comparisons of the results. As a result, alpine strawberries have been bred into a number of named varieties, selected for size, shape, flavour and colour. You can choose between ‘Mignonette’, ‘Baron Solemacher’, ‘Scarlet Wonder’ and ‘Pineapple Crush’. ‘Alexandria’ is generally reckoned to be the best for the UK. One of my favourites, ‘Blanc Ameloire’, has actually reverted to a runnering habit, although it used to be a true, non-runnering alpine. Best of all, alpines grow easily from seed and indeed will self seed themselves around your garden, so you can do a bit of amateur plant breeding and create your own unique strawberry, perfectly adapted to your garden and your tastes.
The flavour of alpine strawberries is sometimes described as ‘strawberry and vanilla’. They don’t develop their full flavour until they are really ripe. Picked when they have just turned red they will be disappointing: you have to wait until they develop a darker colour. Picking the white varieties can be tricky as there is practically no colour change, but there is a shape change as they sort of puff up that you can learn to recognise. The idea behind white fruits is that the birds aren’t meant to be able to find them, but in my garden the birds don’t seem to have got the memo, at least in the case of whitecurrants and yellow raspberries. White alpines are an exception: the birds really do seem to leave them alone. I think of them as sweeter than the reds but possibly just because they get a chance to stay on the plant for longer.
By now, I can’t avoid those hybrid strawberry comparisons any longer. The most obvious first: alpine strawberries aren’t so big. If you are looking for huge bowlfuls laden with cream or want to make jam, then hybrids are the way to go. But alpines make up for it in a lot of ways. They aren’t such heavy feeders, there is less work picking off runners, they are less prone to diseases and last for longer, they will tolerate a bit of shade (but expect later and smaller crops) and their cropping season is far longer. In practice, I grow both. A small patch of hybrids gives a high summer treat, but the alpines are my mainstay, yielding a handful of seriously tasty fruit every week of the summer. The wild strawberries, on the other hand, are just a pest and I’ve finally decided it’s time for them to go from the garden to make way for better behaved, more productive crops, restored to their rightful place as an occasional foraged treat, running free in the wild.
Another useful quality of alpine (and wild) strawberries that you won’t find in the hybrids is that, left in a sunny place, they will self-dry and thereafter keep forever. The smell while they are drying is absolutely amazing: if you want to scent a room, forget incense and oils – just leave a few alpine strawberries sitting on the windowsill.
If you want to grow alpine strawberries, there is a good range of varieties available from The Strawberry Store and plenty of seed companies carry one variety or another. Be careful when buying seed from amateur suppliers though. At least one seller on eBay illustrates their ‘white wild strawberries’ with a picture of a pineberry, which is a variety of hybrid strawberry. If this is what they are selling, then like all hybrids it won’t come true from seed but will give very uncertain results. You can also propagate alpines by dividing the clumps, which will of course give new plants that are clones of the original.