Alpine strawberries: Perfect in foliage and in fruit

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    Alpine strawberries, on the right, don't compare in size to the supermarket berry on the left, but they offer delightful flavor, intriguing colors, and a long harvest season. The three alpines, from left to right: Rugen Improved, Yellow Alpine, and Golden Alexandria
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    Golden Alexandria'alpine strawberry has gold foliage and red berries.
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Part of the joy in gardening with edibles in is growing varieties of fruit and veggies that you just can't find at the store.

Alpine strawberries are one such pleasure. Because they are so tender and thin-skinned, they have a short shelf life and don't survive travel well. This means you'll never find a carton of alpine strawberries at the supermarket.

Yet these delicate berries have a tart and complex flavor that surpasses the usual strawberry. They're reminiscent of SweeTarts candy, with a fresh strawberry flavor that makes them a hit on their own or sprinkled over ice cream.

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Simple pairings best

While they can be baked or used in pies, they lose much of their complexity when mixed with too many other flavors, so I prefer them in simple pairings where they can be the star. "The Food Lover's Garden" by Mark Diacono (Timber Press) has a delightful recipe for alpine strawberry scones. The lightly sweetened scones are combined with fresh whipped cream and macerated alpine strawberries for a perfect summertime treat.

When growing alpine strawberries, you can get away with having less sunshine than with other strawberries. Because the plants haven't been bred extensively for large-size fruit, these tiny berries are strong and need less in the way of compost and fertilizer to perform well.

They have a long season of bloom and fruit, and have refined-looking foliage that's perfectly at home next to either ornamentals or other edibles.

This year, I grew three varieties of alpine strawberries, some a bit exotic, all from Log House Plants:

1. The traditional red Fragaria vesca 'Rugen Improved' is a sturdy and attractive plant. Within two months of planting my four-inch start, I was picking two to three berries per day, and it's still producing even after the onset of October's rains. With the rich green foliage and crisp white flowers, this would make a stunning addition to an ornamental container planting, with the added snacking benefit.

2. I also tested a "white" alpine strawberry, Fragaria vesca 'Alpine Yellow.' While it took me a few tries to figure out when these white berries were ripe, these should be considered if you're struggling with birds or critters eating your fruit. On the disastrous day that my chickens got into the vegetable garden, these petite white berries were the only fruit left!

The flavor is comparable to that of the red berries, so I plan on planting more of both next year, as having both red and white makes a fun contrast in the garden and on desserts.

3. There's also a variety with golden foliage and red berries, Fragaria vesca 'Golden Alexandria,' which stood out beautifully next to the subdued tones in the rest of my vegetable garden. [See second photo at top. Click on the arrow at the right base of the first photo.] While the berries were smaller than that of 'Rugen Improved,' the plant more than made up for it in increased production.

Grow alpines from seed

In the past, I'd tried growing alpine strawberries from seed and been disappointed with the uneven germination.

I tried again recently with seeds from Renee's Garden, which has a variety called 'Mignonette' that is said to be deliciously sweet. It turns out, they're fairly easy to grow, but they take a whopping three to four weeks to germinate and a couple of months after that before they're ready to plant in the ground.

If you'd like to try to grow alpine strawberries from seed, starting about 4 months before the last spring frost is a good plan, so that you can make the most of their first growing season.

Given the timing, packets of seeds would make an excellent addition to a Christmas stocking, as I can't imagine any gardener churlish enough to not be charmed by these tasty and beautiful plants.

Read more about alpine strawberries in Small Strawberries, Big Taste.

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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening, and on Twitter.

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