Of all the blossoms that clothe our open fields, one of the prettiest is that of the wild strawberry. And yet so influenced is man by his stomach that he seldom heeds this flower except as a promise of a crop of strawberries. It is comforting to know that the flowers of the field "do not care a rap" whether man notices them or not; insect attentions are what they covet, and they are surely as indifferent to our indifference as it is to them.
The field strawberry's five petals are little cups of white held up protectingly around a central treasure of anthers and pistils; each petal has its base narrowed into a little stem, which the botanists call a claw. When the blossom first opens, the anthers are little, flat, vividly lemon-yellow discs, each disc consisting of two clamped together sternly and determinedly as if they meant never to open and yield their gold dust. At the very center of the flower is a little, greenish yellow cone, which if we examine with a lens, we can see is made up of many pistils set together, each lifting up a little, circular, eager stigma high as ever it can reach. Whether all the stigmas receive pollen or not determines the formation of a good strawberry.
The sepals are slender and pointed and seem to be ten in number, every other one being smaller and shorter than its neighbors; but the five shorter ones are not sepals but are bracts below the calyx. The sepals unite at their bases so that the strawberry has really a lobed calyx instead of separate sepals. The blossom stem is soft, pinkish and silky and wilts easily. There are several blossoms borne upon one stem and the central one opens first.
The strawberry leaf is beautiful; each of its three leaflets is oval, deeply toothed, and has strong regular veins extending from the midrib to the tip of each tooth. In color it is rich, dark green and turns to wine-color in autumn. It has a very pretty way of coming out of its hairy bud scales, each leaflet folded lengthwise and the three pressed together. Its whole appearance then, is infantile in the extreme, it is so soft and helpless looking. But it soon opens out on its pink, downy stem and shows the world how beautiful a leaf can be.
If a comparison of the wild and cultivated strawberries is practicable, it makes this lesson more interesting. Much tillage and food have caused the cultivated blossoms to double, and they may often have seven or eight petals. And while the wild flowers are usually perfect, many cultivated varieties have the pollen and pistils borne in different flowers, and they depend upon the bees to carry their pollen. The blossom stem of the garden strawberry is round, smooth and quite strong, holding its branching panicle of flowers erect, and it is usually shorter than the leaf stems among which it nestles. The flowers open in a series, so that ripe and green fruit, flowers and buds may often be found on the same stem. As the strawberry ripens, the petals and stamens wither and fall away; the green calyx remains as the hull, which holds in its cup the pyramid of pistils which swell and ripen into the juicy fruit. To the botanists the strawberry is not a berry, that definition being limited to fruits having a juicy pulp and containing many seeds, like the currant or grape. The strawberry is a fleshy fruit bearing its seed in shallow pits on its surface. These seeds are so small that we do not notice them when eating the fruit, but each one is a tiny nut, almond-shaped, and containing within its tough, little shell a starchy meat to sustain the future plant which may grow from it. It is by planting these seeds that growers obtain new varieties.
The root of the strawberry is fibrous and threadlike. When growers desire plants for setting new strawberry beds they are careful to take only such as have light colored and fresh-looking roots. On old plants the roots are rather black and woody and are not so vigorous.
The stem of the strawberry is partially underground and so short as to be unnoticeable. However, the leaves grow upon it alternately one above another, so that the crown rises as it grows. The base of each leaf has a broad, clasping sheath which partly encircles the plant and extends upward in a pair of earlike stipules.
The runners begin to grow after the fruiting season has closed; they originate from the upper part of the crown; they are strong, fibrous and hairy when young. Some are short between joints, others seem to reach far out as if seeking for the best location before striking root; a young plant will often have several leaves before putting forth roots. Each runner may start one or more new strawberry plants. After the young plant has root growth so as to be able to feed itself, the runner ceases to carry sap from the main stem and withers to a mere dry fiber. The parent plant continues to live and bear fruit, for the strawberry is a perennial, but the later crops are of less value. Gardeners usually renew their plots each year, but if intending to harvest a second year's crop, they cut off the runners as they form.
Leading thought—The strawberry plant has two methods of perpetuating itself, one by the seeds which are grown on the outside of the strawberry fruits, and one by means of runners which start new plants wherever they find place to take root.
Method—It would be well to have a strawberry plant, with roots and runners attached, for an observation lesson by the class. Each pupil should have a leaf, including the clasping stipules and sheath at its base. Each one should also have a strawberry blossom and bud, and if possible a green or ripe fruit.
1. What kind of root has the strawberry? What is its color?
2. How are the leaves of the strawberry plant arranged? Describe the base of the leaf and the way it is attached to the stem. Has each leaflet a pedicel or stem of its own? How many leaflets are there? Sketch a strawberry leaf, showing the edges and form of the leaflets, and the veins.
3. From what part of the plant do the runners spring? When do the runners begin to grow? Does the runner strike root before forming a new plant or does the little plant grow on the runner and draw sustenance from the parent plant?
4. What happens to the runners after the new plants have become established? Does the parent plant survive or die after it sends out many runners?
5. Describe the strawberry blossom. How many parts are there to the hull or calyx? Can you see that five of these are set below the other five?
6. How many petals has it? Does the number differ in different flowers? Has the wild strawberry as many petals as the cultivated ones?
7. Study with a lens the small green button at the center of the flower. This is made up of pistils so closely set that only their stigmas may be seen. Do you find this button of pistils in the same blossom with the stamens? Does the wild blossom have both stamens and pistils in the same flower?
8. Describe the stamens. What insects carry pollen for the strawberry plants?
9. Are the blossoms arranged in clusters? Do the flowers all open at the same time? What parts of the blossom fall away and what parts remain when the fruit begins to form?
10. Are the fruits all of the same shape and color? Is the pulp of the same color within as on the surface? Has the fruit an outer coat or skin? What are the specks on its surface?
11. How many kinds of wild strawberries do you know? How many kinds of cultivated strawberries do you know?
12. Describe how you should prepare, plant and care for a strawberry bed.