Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I first discovered wild strawberry when I was a young woman, fresh out of university. I was doing some volunteer work on a city farm in Dundee, Scotland. One of my duties was to take the goats for a walk (as you do) – we had two milking goats, Beatrice, a white toggenburg with distinctive tassels under her chin and Shirley, an anglo-nubian with a bellow like a dying walrus. Both of them had two kids, and so we had a little herd of six. Every day, I took them to a piece of wasteland a hundred yards from the farm, and sat on a pile of masonry while the mothers grazed, and the babies played ‘I’m the king of the castle’. Passersby on the way to the bus station would sometimes stop to survey the scene, and on one occasion a small boy asked me what kind of dogs they were, but generally all was peaceful except for the hum of bees and the occasional groan from Shirley. Sometimes, I would almost doze off, but Beatrice had a habit of resting her forehead against my leg and sighing, as if motherhood was too much, so it wasn’t usually for long. And for sustenance, I had the wild strawberries that grew everywhere. I would even fight the goats for them. The intense flavour of these tiny fruits was concentrated berry sweetness, much finer than anything that I ever grew or bought from a shop. This was a complicated time in life, when I really had no idea at all what I was doing, and yet I remember those summer afternoons with great fondness. The sense of possibility, of choice, was something that I wouldn’t experience again until I was in my fifties.
I found the plant twice today, once growing in the wall of the Parkland Walk at Muswell Hill, a disused railway line turned into a nature reserve, and once in the unadopted road here in East Finchley. I suspect that St Pancras and Islington Cemetery will be full of it, too. This is not an ancestor of our garden strawberry, but a species in its own right, and a native of the UK and most of the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the Alpine Strawberry, the fruit is much prized in other parts of Europe: the Swedes thread the individual fruits onto grass stalks because they are so delicate. I should add here that Ingmar Bergman’s film, called ‘Wild Strawberries’ in English, has a title that translates as ‘wild strawberry patch’ in Swedish, which can mean ‘an underrated gem of a place, often with sentimental or personal value’ according to that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. I’m glad that I’m not the only person for whom the sight of wild strawberries rekindles memories of times past.
You might expect such tasty fruit to be popular with creatures besides ourselves, and you would be right: deer and all manner of birds love the fruit. William Morris was inspired to create his pattern ‘ The Strawberry Thief’ after seeing a thrush take one from the garden.For a more realistic depiction of the fruit, we can turn to the still lives of the Dutch Golden Age by artists such as Adriaen Coorte. The ones in the picture below look delicious enough to pluck from the frame and munch right away.
The name ‘strawberry’ comes not from the straw which is sometimes placed under the ripening berries of domestic fruits, but from an old past participle of the verb ‘to strew’, describing how the plant spreads itself across the ground by runners. The website ‘A Modern Herbal’ describes many of the plant’s medicinal uses: the leaves were mostly used for conditions such as gout, but the fruit is said to be useful for whitening the teeth (the juice must remain on the teeth for five minutes, and then be washed off with water to which a pinch of bicarbonate of soda has been added). Cut strawberries rubbed all over the skin will help if, like me while I was in Canada, you are unexpectedly afflicted with mild sunburn. This occurred on one of only two bright sunny days that we experienced in two and a half weeks: the rest of the time, you were more likely to need a remedy for rust, so torrential and persistent was the down pour.
The plant has a lively and varied folklore associated with it. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya smuggled dead children into her ‘hall’ wrapped in wild strawberry leaves. In Roman mythology, it is associated with Venus. For Christians, it was the plant of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, with the three-part leaves representing the Trinity. However, its sweetness and sultry perfume were thought also to be a source of temptation, as seen in several parts of Hieronymous Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. painted between 1495 and 1505. The left hand panel of this work shows the Garden of Eden, and the right hand panel shows the Last Judgement. In the central panel, naked humans are shown enjoying largely innocent pleasures, including riding on enormous fish-submarines, and wrestling with gigantic strawberries. This is a work of extraordinary imagination and exuberance, and has been open to interpretation of different kinds from the beginning. Just recently, some scholars have detected a note of irony in his work, but I do wonder if this is just us inflicting our own world view on someone who lived almost 800 years ago.
It will not surprise you to learn that wild strawberries have inspired a number of poets. One of them is the cartoonist and children’s author Shel Silverstein (1930 -1999), whose poem ‘Wild Strawberries’ is a great example of taking an idea and running with it.
Are Wild Strawberries really wild?
Will they scratch an adult, will they snap at a child?
Should you pet them, or let them run free where they roam?
Could they ever relax in a steam heated home?
Can they be trained to not growl at the guests?
Will a litterbox work or would they leave a mess?
Can we make them a Cowberry, herding the cows,
Or maybe a Muleberry pulling the plows,
Or maybe a Huntberry chasing the grouse,
Or maybe a Watchberry guarding the house,
And though they may curl up at your feet oh so sweetly,
Can you ever feel that you trust them completely?
Or should we make a pet out of something less scary,
Like the Domestic Prune, or the Imported Cherry,
Anyhow, you’ve been warned and I will not be blamed
If your Wild Strawberry cannot be tamed.
However, for a more grown-up poem about the plant, I would like to honour Helen Dunmore an author better known for her novels but a very gifted poet . I have read many of her books, but one of my favourites is ‘The Siege’, about the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad. It’s an agonising read, but one of those books that linger in the memory long after they’ve been read. I was deeply sad to learn that the author has terminal cancer, and has written a very considered and moving piece about it here. One of her great strengths as a writer is her use of sensory impressions to draw us in. I am in awe of how she does this. The poem is copyright, but do have a look here . You won’t be disappointed.
Photo One(Wild Strawberry fruit) – By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41218044
Photo Two (The Strawberry Thief) – By The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Photos of paintings by Adriaen Coorte and Hieronymous Bosch in the public domain.
Credit to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for some of the information in this week’s blog.
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