I remember the first time I noticed wild strawberries. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was pulling weeds from the flower bed that ran along the fence line. My gaze was focused on the dirt and I was removing everything that didn’t look like Lupines. The clovers and grasses had taken over this part of the yard so cleaning up this bed was a monumental task. As I was pulling up the greenery and filling my bucket, I noticed a small red berry laying close to the ground. This little berry was not longer than 1/4 of an inch. It looked so familiar to me. I bent down closer to get a better look, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.
I went inside and picked up a couple of the field guides I had recently purchased. I headed back to the flower bed and sat on the ground. I began investigating this plant. I looked at the leaves. I read the field guide. I looked at the flowers and read the field guide. I looked at stems and the meandering root systems, and I read the field guide. Each time I went between the field guide and the plant I was beginning to understand what I was looking at. This plant was beginning to make itself known to me. Then when all the observation and reading finally aligned, I realized that I had found a small patch of wild strawberries. How cool was that!
Identifying Wild Strawberries
Wild strawberries are now very noticeable for me. In early to mid May, they spring up around the yard producing symmetrical white flowers with 5 petals. Their toothed leaves are actually leaflets that grow on a separate slender stalk. The flowers and stalk are usually so close together that you really need to get down to their level to see their relationship to each other.
Wild strawberries are part of the Rosaceae, or Rose, family of plants. The Rose family contains over 4,000 different species of plants ranging from shrubs and trees, to herbs and vines. Other fruit producing plants that are in the Rose family are cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums.
The field guides say that there are four different plants that identify as strawberries in the eastern part of the United States The Common Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), the Wood Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), the Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), and Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica). The Barren Strawberry and the Mock Strawberry have similar leave structures to the Common or Wood Strawberries, but have yellow flowers instead of the white. The Barren Strawberry doesn’t produce fruit and is often used as ornamental ground cover. The Mock Strawberry produces fruit, but it smaller than the Common Strawberry. The Mock Strawberry is also a native plant of eastern and southern Asia, but has spread out from that area.
Forming a connection to a plant like the wild strawberry can be the first step in forging a connection to the land. I have created this bond with the wild strawberries as a result of really getting to know it. I now see it everywhere and want to support its growth whenever I can. In the book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about how her experiences with wild strawberries supported the growth of her understanding of a gift economy. Kimmerer explains that she see the wild strawberry as a gift from the earth. Gifts are not earned or deserved, but given freely and are received with gratitude. Gifts should also be reciprocated when the time is right. Sharing of gifts is a foundational practice towards establishing a reciprocal relationship of caring.
Kimmerer talks about how her dad loved strawberries and how she would collect strawberries to give to him. This act of giving created this relationship of caring that connect the fields of wild strawberries to Kimmerer and to her dad. This caring relationship also extended back the other way from her dad through Kimmerer to the fields. A sense of gratitude and connectedness is established when you as a see the plants as producers of gifts given freely, instead of products to be consumed. This shift in our relationship with the earth brings about healing of the land and the self. Kimmerer says, “Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.” (quoted in Braiding Sweetgrass).
There is so much we can learn from the natural world if we slow down and observe what is happening. A wild strawberry can teach us the importance of honoring our gifts. A snail can teach us to slow down and enjoy the morning dew. A flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can teach us the importance of community. We just need to stop and observe and the wonders of the world as they reveal themselves to us.
“The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness”Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass