Wild Edibles: Wild Strawberries
Strawberries are a favorite berry among both humans and animals. The strawberries we find in the grocery store are similar to the wild fruit – in fact the domestic strawberry is a direct descendant! Evidence of consumption dates to pre-historic times. The first peoples known to have cultivated strawberries for use were the Persians. According to Wikipedia (and other informational sites), the Persians called the strawberry Toot Farangi. From there the seeds traveled along ancient trade routes east to Europe and west to China. During the 1800’s the woodland strawberry started to vanish from gardens, the garden strawberry replaced it as the fruit was larger and easier to harvest.
The flavorful wild strawberry is well worth the effort it takes to harvest. For such a small fruit (less than one inch) it packs a huge flavor punch. Today there are small operations that grow the wild strawberry to supply to gourmet chefs. Some of these are also produced for syrups and other commercial preparations (like jam…mmmm!).
The wild strawberry can be found all over the Northern Hemisphere. This doesn’t mean that it is always easy to find. The wild strawberry loves a variety of habitats from disturbed areas, fields, pastures, and along the edges of forests. Recently on hikes around my home I have found wild strawberries deep in the forest, not just at the edge. Basically – wild strawberries can be anywhere. Each of the habitats I have found them thriving in were slightly different. The largest plants will be found in shaded areas, more prolific growth will be found in fields that are open and sunny. All strawberries found in any of these habitats will be tasty.
Identifying wild strawberry plants is easy. Once you see one, you never forget! Before moving from the city to our home in the Allegany mountains in February this year (2012), the last time I had the pleasure of viewing and eating wild strawberries was in the Piedmont of North Carolina over a decade ago.
Wild strawberry looks very similar to the cultivate plants – 3 leaves per stem, fuzzy stem, and some ‘runners’. Some have a red tint to the stems, others do not. All have a toothed edge to the leaves similar to rose plants. The flowers are white with six petals and a yellow center. When the flower falls away a berry will begin growing.
There is a similar plant called wood strawberry, false strawberry, and some people call them water berries. The leaves are very similar to wild strawberries, though unlike real strawberries the plants die completely in the winter. There will be no visible runners - false strawberry has no runners at all. Another distinction between the two - false strawberry has a yellow flower. The small red berry produced by this plant is not poisonous. It has no flavor at all, hence the nickname waterberry.
The wild strawberry can be used the same way as what I jokingly call ‘grocery store grown’ berries. Once you taste the wild strawberry, no cultivated one will ever satisfy your craving for the ‘real deal’! Some of my favorite uses from the days before I left my rural upbringing (and can’t wait to make again now that I’m back in the country!)—
Strawberry leaf tea for upset stomach!
Strawberry ice cream!
Strawberry and black tea!
And of course, my favorite…
Wild Strawberry Jam:
8 cups strawberries, slightly crushed
1 envelope pectin (available at all local grocers)
4 cups sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
Wash your strawberries and pull the green parts off. Crush the berries a little or a lot depending on how smooth you like your jam. Put the strawberries into a large pot with a small amount of water, about ½ cup. Mix the pectin in with ½ cup dry sugar, then stir into the crushed fruit over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Once the mix is boiling, add the rest of the sugar and continue stirring. Add the lemon juice at this time, too.
Allow to come to a boil again and let boil for about one minute. Dip a spoon into the mixture and then into a glass of cold water to check for ‘jelling’. If it reaches the jelled consistency that you like, usually slightly softer than commercial, let sit for about 5 minutes, then pour into clean jars.
Place lids and rings onto jars, wipe clean, then place into a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. At least two inches of water should cover the jars at all times. You can skip boiling the jars if you are freezing the jam or will be eating it quickly.
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