Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

WILD STRAWBERRY[i] (Fragaria vesca)
Family: Rosaceae           
Fragaria vesca
(Downs above Bignor, September 2002)

Wild Strawberries are widespread throughout the British Isles with the exception of the most northerly areas of Scotland (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). They can be found growing prolifically in woodland glades and on grassy banks[ii]. The fruits ripen in early June and they can be harvested until the end of August or even later.

Inedible look-alikes
Before the fruits form it can be difficult to distinguish between Wild Strawberry and the equally common Barren Strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) which has very similar leaves and flowers (for comparison of flowers and leaves of the two species see: Easy Wildflowers). If they are Barren Strawberry plants and you return a month later to harvest the fruits, you’ll find that the flowers have ripened merely to clusters of inedible dry achenes.

The two look-alikes are in fact easily distinguished—even from their leaves. Each leaflet of the Barren Strawberry has a terminal tooth that’s much shorter than the teeth on either side of it, whereas in the true Wild Strawberry the terminal tooth is as long as, or longer than those on either side, even if it’s quite narrow. Also, the hairs on the underside of Barren Strawberry leaves stand upright, while those of the Wild Strawberry lie flat. Lastly, the upper sides of Barren Strawberry leaves are often much darker than the light green leaves of the true Strawberry (see also Jones 2018).

Images showing differences in leaf morphology
[Photos: Gordon Hillman]. (Coldthorne Lane, Hailsham, April/May 2009)

What we think of as the fruit of the strawberry plant is actually just a fleshy receptacle. The true fruits—the structures produced by the plant’s ovaries or carpels—are the little pips (or achenes) scattered over the surface of this red receptacle. There have been various theories on the origins of the name strawberry, for example, that it derives from the practice of covering the lines of cultivated strawberry plants with a low ridge of loose straw to hide the scarlet fruits from the sharp eyes of strawberry-loving birds; or from the tradition of pickers who used to carry the fruits strung on pieces of straw when taking them to market; or from Old English to ‘strew’ (see Online Etymology Dictionary), which describes the plant’s runners that stray in all directions and look as if they are strewn on the ground (Darrow 1966: 16; see also: Missouri Environment and Garden News).

Nutritional and medicinal uses
Wild Strawberries may be small but they are packed with flavour—with their combination of intense sweetness and effervescent tartness they produce a taste explosion. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are commonly made into jams, jellies and juices; the leaves are also edible (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database; see also: Jarić et al. 2007; Schunko and Vogl 2010; Vorstenbosch et al. 2017). In the Upper Reno Valley (Bologna and Tuscany, Italy) an alcoholic drink is made by fermenting Wild Strawberry fruits, and the recipe states: “Fill glass jar with wild strawberries, cover with sugar, close jar and expose to sunlight for 40 days. The lightly fermented syrup, filtered and bottled, is used as a drink, diluted with a double quantity of water.” (Egea et al. 2016: table 4; see also: Egea et al. 2015).

Wild Strawberry plants (flowers, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) are a rich source of bioactive compounds known to have beneficial effects in terms of promoting health and preventing disease; for example, they are proven to be effective in the reduction of obesity and heart disease risk, they provide protection against certain cancers, have anti-inflammatory, antidiabetes, antioxidant and anticoagulant properties, and are also effective blood pressure and cholesterol regulators (Afrin et al. 2016; Basu et al. 2016; Dyduch-Siemińska et al. 2015; Liberal et al. 2014; Muthukumaran et al. 2017).
Fragaria vesca – flowers and leaves.
(Horam, Cuckoo Trail, May 2010)

Strawberries are high in micronutrients, phenolic compounds and ellagitannins[iii]; they are a useful nutritional supplement for diets low in saturated fats and sodium, in addition they contain high levels of potassium and fibre (Alvarez-Suarez et al. 2014; see also Nutrition Value online database). Research has shown that the fresh strawberries have far more nutritive value than the processed foods made from the fruits (e.g., jam, juice, purée, wine; Alvarez-Suarez et al. 2014 8-9; but see also: Dyduch-Siemińska et al. 2015: 6, who comment that: “Dried fruits have a greater nutrient density, greater fiber content, increased shelf life, and significantly greater phenol antioxidant content compared to fresh fruits”). The nutritional content of the fruits (i.e., in terms of relative proportions of micronutrients, bioactive compounds, vitamins, etc.) is also dependent on the variety of Wild Strawberry, the time of cultivation and the date of harvesting (Jurgiel-Małecka et al. 2017: 208).

It is unsurprising, therefore, given the wealth of health benefits of Wild Strawberries, that there are numerous references to traditional uses of the plants. In Maden (Eastern Turkey, Elaziğ Province) the fruits are commonly acknowledged to have many curative properties, including as an analgesic, antiseptic, astringent and diuretic, and they are also used to treat several gastric (e.g., stomach pains, enteritis, diarrhea) and urinary disorders (Çakılcıoğlu et al. 2011). Similarly, the efficacy of the species in treating certain digestive problems is recognised by villagers living at several locations in the mountainous Kopaonik region of Central Serbia, but here the leaves (e.g., in the form of an infusion) are used for their diuretic and laxative properties (Jarić et al. 2007). In addition, the leaves (washed clean and placed externally on the affected area) are used to alleviate painful haemorrhoids (ibid.: table 2). In the Palestinian West Bank 50 ml. of a decoction made of leaves boiled in water is taken 5-6 times per day for antibiotic purposes (Jaradat et al. 2016). In the Albanian Alps in Kosovo an infusion of Wild Strawberry leaves is used as a neuro-relaxant (Mustafa et al. 2012). And a traditional fermented liqueur made from Wild Strawberry fruits is taken as a remedy for diseases of the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, musculoskeletal and genitourinary systems in the Upper Reno Valley (Bologna and Tuscany, Italy; Egea et al. 2015: supplementary data).
Fragaria vesca – showing achenes on the bright red,
fleshy receptacle. (Abbots Wood, June 2009)

Prehistoric and historic uses
Fragaria vesca remains are found on archaeological sites of all periods (for references see: Kroll 1997: 35). As is typical of many of the fruits described in the Wild Plant Foods of Britain blog, finds of Wild Strawberries are most frequently preserved in waterlogged rather than charred form (see separate entries for Blackberry, Sloe, Crab apple, Dog rose, Raspberry). There is very early evidence of fruit gathering at the late Mesolithic/Ertebølle culture site of Tybrind Vig in Denmark (c. 5600-4000 BC), where two achenes were identified in submerged cultural deposits (Kubiak-Martens 1999). The disparity between quantities of Wild Strawberry remains preserved by waterlogging versus charring is perhaps most clearly exemplified in the archaeobotanical samples at Neolithic pile dwelling (‘Pfahlbauten) settlements[iv] in southern Europe (for comparative quantitative data see: Colledge and Conolly 2014: table 4; Jacomet 2006[v]: table 3: Karg and Märkle 2002: table 2). For example, large quantities of waterlogged Wild Strawberry achenes were found at the late Neolithic lakeside settlements of Arbon Bleiche 3 in Switzerland (n=5,471; Jacomet et al. 2004) and Torwiesen II in Germany (n=48,413; Herbig 2006) and at these two sites charred specimens were present in very low numbers (0.07% (n=4) and 0.15% (n=73) of the total waterlogged achenes, respectively). Thousands of waterlogged remains (but no charred finds) are also recorded at early Neolithic Egolzwil 3 (Switzerland, Bollinger 1994), middle Neolithic Motte-aux-Magnins (France, Lundström-Baudais 1989), at the late Neolithic sites of Horgen-Scheller (Switzerland, Favre 2002), Nidau-Schlossmatte/BKW (Switzerland, Brombacher 1997), Sutz-Lattrigen (Lattrigen Hauptstation VII; Switzerland, Brombacher 1997), Seekirch-Achwiesen (Germany, Maier 2004), Seekirch-Stockwiesen (Germany, Maier 2004), Sipplingen (Germany, Riehl 2004) and Hočevarica (Slovenia, Jeraj et al. 2009), and at final Neolithic Clairvaux Les Lacs station III (France, Lundström-Baudais 1986). At Neolithic dry-land settlements, where only charred Wild Strawberry achenes are preserved, the numbers are much lower (for two examples where quantities exceed 100 see: Antolín and Jacomet 2015; Blankenhorn and Hopf 1982).

Charred Wild Strawberry remains were found within and around the Copper Age (c. 3000-2800 BC) cremation chambers located along the Riparo Valtenesi limestone terrace at Rocca di Manerba, on Lake Garda in Italy (Colledge 2007). The fruits were with placed with the human bones together with other edible domestic and wild plants, including many colourful fruits, presumably as dedications before the cremations took place, and the author comments: “The strawberries and raspberries would have been easily accessible for gathering and, like the Cornelian Cherries, if picked when mature both would have added to the vivid colours of the funerary offerings.” (ibid.: 399).

The history of the use of Fragaria vesca dates back to the Roman period and several well-known authors include references to the fruits in their works, including Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), Virgil (70-19 BC), Ovid  (43-18/17 BC), Pliny (23-79 AD) and Apuleius Barbarus (c. 6th century AD; Darrow 1966: 15-16; Wilhelm 1974: 264). The brightly coloured fruits are depicted in Roman frescoes, as at the ancient site of Oplontis[vi] in the Villa of Poppaea, where one painting shows a still life with a basket of Wild Strawberries and other fruits. Jashemski et al. also mention the copy of a painting (the original now no longer visible) on a pillar in the Villa of Diomedes at Pompeii, showing a Wild Strawberry with roses and a butterfly (Jashemski et al. 2002: 111 and figure 265).

Wild Strawberries appeared in many Medieval religious paintings in the 1400s and are considered to have had symbolic meaning; Darrow cites Haig (1913), who states: “the strawberry stands apart from all other symbolical fruits…. It is the symbol of perfect righteousness” (Darrow 1966: 11-14; Sillasoo 2006: 64; see also: Łuczaj 2012). It is thought that the tripartite leaves symbolised the Holy Trinity, the five petals of the flower represented the wounds of Christ and fruits his blood (Darrow 1966: 13, citing the Swiss herbalist Father Johann Künzle[vii]). The profusion of religious depictions coincided with the time when strawberries were first cultivated in Europe (for a comprehensive summary of the early history of the strawberry, see: Darrow 1966: 15-23). In 1368 King Charles V of France reputedly asked his gardener to plant 1,200 strawberries in the gardens at the Louvre in Paris (Darrow 1966: 16). French aristocracy followed suit and in 1378 the Dukes of Burgundy also had cultivated plots of the fruits (ibid.). Early documentary evidence in Britain for the growing of strawberries in gardens comes from references in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, in Richard III (written in c. 1593) Act III, scene IV (which takes place in the Tower of London) the Duke of Gloucester asks the Bishop of Ely to fetch him some of the fruits: 

When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there
I do beseech you send for some of them.

Darrow comments that by the mid-1550s strawberries were so popular in England that they were regularly farmed in order to satisfy demands, he also cites Thomas Tusser who in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1557) advises that their cultivation is best done by women:

Wife, into the garden and set me a plot
With strawberry roots, the best to be got;
Such growing abroad among thorns in the wood,
Well chosen and picked, prove excellent good.

There are numerous recorded finds of Wild Strawberries on Medieval sites and many are preserved (commonly in waterlogged, mineralised or desiccated form) in cess pits and midden deposits (Greig 1996). Approximately 800 achenes were identified in two organic layers inside the 15th century Worcester barrel latrine (Greig 1981), thousands of Wild Strawberry remains (c. 9,000) were recovered from two cess pits (15th/16th century) at Göttingen in Lower Saxony, Germany (Hellwig 1997), average concentrations of c. 500 achenes per litre are recorded for seven 11th-13th century latrines at Überlingen on Lake Constance, Germany (Märkle 2005), and at the castle of Marmorera[viii] (c.14th century) in southeast Switzerland over 2,750 desiccated achenes were found in a crevice to the west of the chapel where household rubbish was routinely discarded (Akeret and Kühn 2008; for other Medieval references, see: Bosi et al. 2009; Brombacher and Hecker 2015; Mazzanti et al. 2005; Rösch et al. 2005).


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[i] Also known as: woodland strawberry, Alpine strawberry, Carpathian strawberry, European strawberry or ‘fraisier des bois’.
[ii] For example, on the South Downs the carpets of wild strawberries in 2009 were so thick with fruits that it was possible to gather over a kilo in one hour (Peter Owen-Jones, pers.comm.).  
[iii] Ellagic acid (EA)—a plant phenolic—derives from ellagitannins, and is linked to human health benefits (Muthukumaran et al. 2017); the authors state: “Strawberries are considered a functional food and nutraceutical source, mainly because of their high concentration of EA and its precursors.
[iv] For a description of the depositional processes at pile-dwelling settlements, see separate entry for Blackberry.
[v] In this paper Jacomet notes: “The most important collected plants were hazelnut (Corylus avellana  L.), wild apple (Malus sylvestris  Miller), sloe (Prunus spinosa  L.), acorns (Quercus  spp.), blackberry and raspberry (Rubus  spp.), wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca  L.) and rose (Rosa  spp.)” (Jacomet 2006: 81).
[vii] For details see: [accessed: 23.07.18]
[viii] The castle was built under a massive rock shelter and this was the reason why so much of the organic materials was preserved (for more details see Janosa 1993).

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