Photo of wild strawberries from google images. In the southeast during the Pleistocene wild strawberries probably covered the plains for miles. Prairies, savannahs, and meadows existed to a greater extent then due to a number of different atmospheric and ecological factors. Even during the Holocene just 200 years ago, William Bartram found what he referred to as strawberry plains where strawberry plants covered the ground for miles. This natural environment is extinct, though relic patches still occur.
According to one opinion poll, the strawberry is rated America’s favorite fruit. This surprises me because the vast majority of supermarket strawberries are a tasteless waste of money. They’re bred to withstand shipping, the newer economical varieties being hard and completely devoid of flavor. Man has improved the quality of most fruit through cultivation, but the wild strawberry is considered an exception, the uncultivated fruit well known to be superior in flavor. Cultivated strawberries are big and red and attractive, proving the old adage that people eat with their eyes, and thus explaining their popularity. Good tasting cultivated varieties can be had at local farmer’s markets, so be sure to buy locally grown strawberries.
The native North America strawberry that grows wild in southeastern North America is Fragaria virginiana. A Dutch horticulturist crossbred this with a Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) to produce the modern strawberry (Fragaria ananensis) from which all cultivated varieties are derived. The hybrids produced a bigger berry but are not better in flavor.
Scientists theorize strawberries first evolved during the Eocene in one of the only cool locations on the planet then–high elevations near what’s now the polar ice cap. As the woldwide climate cooled, they invaded the lowlands and became widespread in North America, Asia, and Europe.
Fragrant wild strawberries (the word fragaria is Latin for fragrant) were probably common during the Pleistocene, though, like 95% of plant species, don’t produce enough pollen to show up in palynological testing. William Bartram, while traveling through northwestern South Carolina and southeastern North Carolina in the 18th century, twice referred to “strawberry plains,” where wild strawberries grew in association with grass, Virginia plantain, burnet, avens, and ginseng. One of these strawberry plains was two miles long. He also crossed mountain meadows that consisted of hundreds of acres of wild strawberries.
Photo of Virginia plaintain (Plantago virginica) from google images. This is one of the plants Bartram found growing in association with wild strawberries in vast “strawberry plains.”
Burnet (Sanguisorba sp.)–another species Bartram found in association with wild strawberries.
Avens (Guem sp.). And another species associated with wild strawberries in this extinct environment.
Bartram’s horse’s hooves were “dyed red” from trodding on the fruits. I’m certain that wild strawberry plains two miles in length no longer exist anywhere in the southeast today. When John Lennon sang “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Link to song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3jrWVp2L7U ), he was crooning a fantasy of an environment that no longer exists. How sad.
Suburban development and fire supression have eliminated all but relics of the type of environments wild strawberries need to establish a plain of two miles in length. Wild strawberries thrive in open sunny spaces created by unchecked wild fires of the kind that were common until the 20th century. Birds, including turkeys and passenger pigeons, and megafauna such as deer, horse, bison, and mammoth spread the seeds in their manure, so that strawberries could grow amongst the grass and herbs of open plains which were common during the Pleistocene because the atmosphere consisted of lower concentrations of carbon dioxide which is more favorable to grass than to trees. Once established, strawberries grow runners and can carpet the ground.
One can catalogue wild strawberry plains as another one of those extinct natural landscapes that is forgotten or unknown by most of today’s lazy ass, electronics-obsessed, couch potatoes but is to be mourned by nature lovers.