Earliglo strawberries are on the wane. Time to move on to other fruits, still strawberries but very different strawberries in all respects: alpine strawberries. The largest of them are the size of a nickel, but each packs the flavor of a silver-dollar-sized berry.
Alpine strawberry is one botanical form of wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca, often referred to by the French name fraise de bois), a different species from the familiar garden strawberry. Wood strawberries are dainty plants that grow wild along the edges of woods in Europe, North and South America and northern Asia and Africa. This is the wild strawberry of antiquity, mentioned in the writings of Virgil, Ovid and Pliny – the strawberry that garlanded medieval religious paintings and was later depicted in grand proportions in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500).
The alpine form of wood strawberry was discovered about 300 years ago east of Grenoble in the low Alps. It soon surpassed other wood strawberries in popularity because its fruits are larger and borne continuously throughout the growing season, and because the plants do not make runners. I’ve even coaxed them to bear fruit in small (four-inch) flowerpots.
Some alpine strawberries bear white fruits, and those are the ones that I grow, for two reasons: First, the flavor, sweet and pineappley, is better than the red ones. And second, being white, the birds don’t notice them, so I can wait to harvest until they are dead-ripe and delicious – all season long.
That same leisurely harvest is not possible with another uncommon fruit that’s just starting to ripen. Gumis (Elaeagnus multiflora) have a pleasant, tart flavor with a bit of astringency – more than a bit until they are thoroughly ripe. The variety I planted, Sweet Scarlet (from www.onegreenworld.com), may be a tad sweeter than run-of-the-mill varieties.
The three-quarter-inch-long gumi fruits, scarlet-red and speckled with silver, make a striking picture as they dangle on long stalks from the undersides of the branches. Birds also find the fruits very attractive. I’ve grown gumi for many years, and last year was the only year in which I was able to harvest gumis ripe and in quantity. That was the one benefit of last summer’s invasion of cicadas, which birds evidently found more luscious than gumis.
Cicadas or not, I’ll keep growing gumis. The large shrubs are able to garner nitrogen from the air, the leaves have an attractive silvery sheen that contrasts beautifully with the scarlet fruits and the flowers perfume the air with a sweet aroma. Perhaps the birds will leave me a few fruits to enjoy.
Read and learn more about alpine strawberries and gumis in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (2004).
Let’s segue from tongue to nose and eyes. For years I’ve grown various David Austin roses with increasing success – the increase due to Mr. Austin’s breeding increasingly better roses rather than to my increased skill as a rosarian. It’s cold here on the farmden, and cold is what usually weakened or did in the roses.
My attraction specifically for David Austin Roses lies in the full-bodied bushes, their pest-resistance and – most important – the old-fashioned shapes (often rounded or cup-shaped), colors (often pastels) and fragrances of their blossoms.
Last winter was brutal for many plants, roses included. Yet the variety L. D. Braithwaite rose, planted in an unprotected location just outside the vegetable garden, weathered the cold unscathed. It is now drenched in deep-red blossoms against a background of reddish leaves. The variety Charlotte didn’t fare so well. It was killed to the ground, perhaps lower; I dug it up.
The variety Strawberry Hill suffered some dieback despite protection afforded by the south-facing brick wall of my house. I’m glad that I didn’t trash this bush, because it’s also now covered with blossoms: flat-topped cups of pink petals that emit a sweet, almost candylike fragrance. Delicious!
And more good scents: catalpa. Although native to a relatively small area in the Midwest, catalpa can now be found throughout the East and as far west as Utah. And it’s spreading.
But let me first backtrack to a few years ago at the local farmers’ market. One farmer had buckets filled with white blossoms that rivaled orchids. I looked and looked at them, trying to figure out what they were, then finally asked. I was embarrassed to learn that they were catalpa blossoms, which I’ve admired for decades – but always from afar, and with their surrounding cloaks of large leaves.
This year I decided to cut some blossoms, strip off the leaves and put them in a vase. And that’s when their delectable scent was fully revealed.
By the time you read this, catalpas will have finished blossoming. Mark your calendars for next year.
Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at www.HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com. You can also visit Lee’s garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com.