Alpine strawberries -- a taste of the wild and a good border plant, too

A friend of mine, perhaps because his background is Austrian or possibly because his Yankee wife thought it a good idea, raised some Alpine strawberries from seed several years back.

It was an eminently successful venture, providing him with an annual taste treat that isn't available in stores or restaurants this side of Paris, where the French call them fraises des bois (fraze-day-bwah). Fortunately both seeds and plants are available in the United States, which should make a lot of discriminating gardeners happy.

Not everyone takes immediately to the "wild" strawberry flavor, but as Amos Pettingill puts it in his 1981 "Garden Book," the high-quality catalog of White Flower Farm, Litchfield, Conn.: "The first spoonful might even be a disappointment, but not the third. That addicts."

My friend, who since leaving Massachusetts a few years ago has taken to raising Alpine strawberries on Florida's west coast, contends he didn't need that many spoonfuls. One was enough. The flavor does differ from the commercial berries we buy in the stores here. But it is delectable while still being distinctly strawberry.

Unlike the conventional strawberry, Alpines do not creep. In other words, they do not send out runners, but should be divided every third year. From two to five new plants come from every division, which means that a few can readily develop into a large berry patch. Because of this growth habit, the berries make a great edging plant along walks or around larger flower beds.

Put another way, Alpines aren't just for the backyard garden anymore. They can be used wherever the ornamental effect is needed. Along with the beauty there will always be the berries.

Alpine berries are pointed in shape and smaller than conventional strawberries. Established plants begin bearing around the end of June and continue until frost. This means a summer-long supply of the fruit for every household that has them.

Flowers are borne on moderately long stems, but the berries that follow have a way of hiding beneath the leaves. You may have to hunt for ripe berries, but the harvest is worth the search. This growth habit also means that there are often more ripe berries to be had than you think.

The plants are fairly prolific, too. My friend and neighbor would often pick a bowlful of the berries one day, and three days later he'd need to pick again. As with many ever-bearing plants, keeping the berries picked encourages the plants to produce more.

Plant the Alpine strawberries in fertile, well-prepared soil which does not hold puddles of water after a heavy rain. Set out the young plants on 12-inch centers. In the colder regions of the country, set out plants in the spring; in warmer regions both fall as well as spring planting is feasible.

As they are vulnerable to frost heaving, see that the plants are protected by a mulch wherever ground freezing occurs.

Sow seeds indoors about 6 weeks before the last heavy frost in your region. Sow the seeds, barely covering them with moist potting soil. A clear plastic bag placed around the seed tray helps maintain the right germinating conditions. Be sure to use only transparent plastic, as strawberry seeds are light-responsive, meaning that germination is triggered by light as well as moisture and warm temperatures. Seedlings should sprout within 14 to 21 days. If possible, grow them in a slightly cooler situation (60 to 65 degrees F.), but this is not vital.

When the seedlings have two pairs of leaves or more, transplant them into individual containers ready for setting out in the garden after all frost danger is past. Meanwhile, be sure to condition them gently to the outdoors by placing them in a cold frame or by placing them outdoors for short periods before bringing them back indoors.

Both seeds and plants are available from the Burpee Company (Doylestown, Pa. 18901) and plants from White Flower Farm (Litchfield, Conn . 06759).

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