Native Wild Strawberry Fields Forever
Updated: Feb 3
On the interactive National Wildlife Federation site you can punch in your zip code and learn the top butterfly and moth host plants in your area. Turns out native wild strawberry (fragaria virginiana) is near the top of the list in Atlanta and hosts 60 butterflies and moths!
Learning this motivated me to get native wild strawberry plants and let them roam freely in my naturescape. I strongly believe more is better when it comes to the native plants that benefit wildlife in my small yard. I knew hybrid strawberries were stoloniferous and formed new plants by trailing above ground, but I didn’t know exactly how generously native wild strawberries spread! I’m thrilled about the extensive native wild strawberry patches I now have from just a few plants I bought at a native plant sale almost two years ago.
The following information might be helpful when making decisions about how native wild strawberry can fit in any yard.
The most important thing to know is native wild strawberry is an easy peasy plant and likes to spread, so give it plenty of room to roam on a slope for erosion control, around trees and bushes, with tall assertive perennials, in a right-of-way strip, in a less landscaped area where it can compete with non-native invasives, where you would normally put mulch, in a lawn to make it more habitat friendly, or instead of a lawn
A more cultivated garden area may not be the best place for vigorous native wild strawberries. In my yard it grows well with sedges (carex), taller grasses, assertive natives such as perennial sunflower (helianthus) and goldenrod (solidago). It doesn’t play well with other short ground covers like green and gold (chrysogonum virginianum) or sedum ternatum
Have natural or manmade barriers so your exuberant native wild strawberry doesn't grow where you don't want it to.
In hot summer areas like Atlanta native wild strawberry goes dormant and seems more content in partially shady areas than in full sun. It's a cool season perennial and actively grows in the fall and early spring.
Native wild strawberry has white blossoms. Anything that looks like a strawberry and has yellow blossoms is the invasive non-native Asian mock strawberry (at least in Georgia). Mock strawberry (potentilla indiga) was brought to America as an exotic flower and has become a pernicious weed. It may look like a strawberry but has tasteless dry fruit.
It might be best to accept the reality that in a naturalized Southern yard, native wild strawberry can be viewed as a sturdy, evergreen groundcover and not necessarily an abundant fruit crop. In her classic backyard habitat restoration book Noah’s Garden, Sarah Stein explains why only one fruit at a time ripens on a native wild strawberry plant. “The softer, sweeter and juicier a ripe berry is, the shorter the shelf life. A defenseless ripe wild strawberry has just a day before it rots or is consumed by seed destroying insects”. To keep the creatures that can disperse its seeds around, it offers “only enough to keep them coming back for more.” Brilliant move for nature to ensure foxes, field mice and chipmunks will monitor and eat the fruit first before insects, but not so great for humans who also want to eat it!
Covering fruiting plants with netting is not an option in a wildlife habitat because it can trap and kill birds and small creatures which kind of defeats the idea of coexisting with nature. I’m fine with wildlife getting first dibs on my wild strawberries. They need to forage food to exist, and I can buy all the seasonal berries I want at my local Atlanta farmers market.
Native wild strawberry is a top host plant for butterflies, so leaves that have been chomped on are a welcome sight. Any efforts to keep the leaves blemish-free, even with "natural" or "organic" pesticides, will destroy the balance of the habitat. Embrace the imperfection of nature!
Note: If you live near intown Atlanta and want to start your own patch of native wild strawberries, please private message me. I’m sincerely more than happy to give small pots of fragaria virginiana plants to anyone who doesn’t use chemicals or gas-powered leaf blowers. I’m fussy about this point because it doesn’t make any sense to plant native plants to attract wildlife then destroy the same ecosystem with poison and 200+ mph force winds. I’ll always take a small bag of organic compost or potting soil in return so I can continue to give away plants, but that’s not at all necessary. I’m intent on helping to build a stronger pollinator pathway through Atlanta, even if it’s just one patch of native plants at a time 🍓