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Strawberry types illustrate some gardeners’ strong opinions

The strawberry cultivar Fragaria x ananassa “Sweet Berry” produces dark pink flowers instead of the typical white flowers. [Photo by Rhonda Nowak]
The strawberry cultivar Fragaria x ananassa “Sweet Berry” produces dark pink flowers instead of the typical white flowers. [Photo by Rhonda Nowak]

“Any reader who picks up ‘Green Thoughts’ and begins to browse at random will perhaps entertain the thought that Eleanor Perenyi is highly opinionated, even prejudiced. And of course she is.” — Allen Lacy in Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,” 1981

Well-known garden writer Allen Lacy spent time in the introduction defending the strong opinions that Eleanor Perenyi discharged throughout her book, “Green Thoughts,” a collection of garden-related essays that she organized in alphabetical order from Annuals to Woman’s Place.

Lacy went on to say: “Gardening is a passionate enterprise, and passion is always opinionated and strongly so. As for prejudice, show me a person who is without prejudice of any kind on any subject, and I’ll show you someone who may be admirably virtuous but is surely no gardener.”

It’s true that Perenyi (1918-2009), who wrote three books besides “Green Thoughts” and was an editor for several magazines, was not bashful about expressing her ardent convictions on any gardening topic. For example, here’s what she thought about strawberries: “... American strawberries, unless shipped out of season from long distances, are second to none. It would therefore seem the height of folly to turn to the smaller, less productive European species often called ‘fraises de bois’ or wild strawberries — which they are not.”

The large-fruited strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) that Perenyi adored are native to eastern regions of North America. She considered them wholly superior to the smaller, less flavorful, European strawberry (Fragaria vesca). “So why grow them in preference to the big, luscious (American) natives?” she asked, and then answered her own question: “Snobbery pure and simple, and I speak with authority ...”

For years, she grew fraises because they were fashionable but had to spend “eternities” on her knees to harvest enough of the small berries to make a dessert for six people. “It isn’t an occupation for the middle-aged,” she wrote, “... and I gave it up.”

I, on the other hand, am far less opinionated about which kind of strawberries are justified to grow in the garden. I admit that for years I have grown F. vesca, commonly called alpine or woodland strawberry, in a pot just to watch how its runners spill over the top and spread across a nearby berm planted with ajuga. I admire such tenacity; never mind the plant has yet to actually produce any strawberries.

This year, I’m growing a more well-behaved — and more productive — strawberry cultivar in my Bandon hoophouse called F. x ananassa ‘Sweet Berry’, an accidental cross between F. virginiana and a Chilean species called F. chiloensis. Although the berries are not as large as the American native species of which Perenyi was so enamored, my ever-bearing plants do produce a lot of delicious, sweet berries and will supposedly continue their proliferation through fall. (In contrast, June-bearing strawberries produce one large crop in late spring/early summer.)

For me, the real wow factor of F. x ananassa ‘Sweet Berry’ is not the berries, however. It’s the deep pink flowers that are considerably more ornamental than typical white strawberry flowers. I’m not sure Perenyi would approve of my reasoning to grow this cultivar but, as I said, my strawberry biases are less well developed than hers apparently were.

Each ‘Sweet Berry’ inflorescence has five sepals and five petals (did you know that strawberries are members of the rose family?) and yellow centers that contain both the male stamens and the female pistils. Although strawberry plants are self-pollinating, they will bear more fruit if they have help from pollinators, especially bees.

Interestingly, each of the strawberry flower’s pistils (around 200) must be fertilized to achieve complete pollination; otherwise, the berries that are produced will be smaller than usual and/or misshapen. Surely if Perenyi knew this, she would have applauded the accomplishment of even the smallest strawberries.

Here is another interesting fact about strawberries. What look like seeds embedded in the flesh of the berry actually are the fruit, called achenes (there are as many achenes on a strawberry as there are pistils on the flower). Each achene contains a single seed. The fleshy part of the strawberry that we eat is there just to hold the achenes and their seeds intact. Lucky for us and other strawberry-loving animals their container tastes so yummy!

Unfortunately, slugs and pillbugs love my strawberries, too. Out of sheer laziness, I’ve been willing to share my bounty with them, but I do forgo mulch around the plants to eliminate one of their favorite hiding places. Other strategies for reducing slugs and pillbugs include spreading diatomaceous earth around the plants, trapping them in small containers of beer set in the soil or gathering them under a piece of wet cardboard or citrus cut in half where they can then be scooped up and discarded.

As I am reading “Green Thoughts,” I can’t help but admire Perenyi’s forceful convictions about gardening. I suppose she became so self-assured as the Baroness Perenyi, overseeing a large estate and garden located in what is today the extreme southwestern region of Ukraine. When Perenyi left Europe before World War II and returned to her homeland in the northeastern United States, she brought her experience and “gardening prejudices,” as Allen Lacy called them, with her.

I have never been a baroness, so perhaps that’s why I have tended to maintain fewer convictions about gardening the longer I garden. Things I believe in wholeheartedly one year (seed-starter plugs, to name just one), I strongly disavow the next year (peat used for the plugs is a nonrenewable resource, and the netting takes too long to decompose). The only thing I’m sure about gardening is that nothing is for sure about gardening.

I’m pretty sure Eleanor Perenyi would not have liked me very much.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.