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Botanical Art Worldwide: America's Flora

Virginia Strawberry

Fragaria virginiana

I was first introduced to Fragaria virginiana in the form of a delicious English jam called Little Scarlet. The fruit from this prized American native plant, with its small, aromatic, ruby berries, has long been valued for its taste. New England Native Americans mixed it with meal to make bread. Early European settlers ‘discovered’ it along the Eastern seaboard. Thomas Hariot, the scientific advisor on Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition described it in 1585, “as good and as great as those which we have in our English gardens.” In 1624, Captain John Smith wrote, “There were large and delicious strawberries growing beneath the trees and other varieties of fruit in abundance.” Roger Williams wrote in 1643 that it was “the wonder of all the fruits growing naturally in these parts.” European nurserymen were happy to add this flavorful, fruiting plant to their gardens, along-side other strawberry varieties found by the plant explorers on their journeys around the world. But perhaps the Virginia Strawberry’s most lasting contribution was when it was accidently hybridized with a Chilean strawberry in the eighteenth century to create the Pine (short for Pineapple), Fragaria ananassa, the variety used today in the commercial production of strawberries.

Since I prefer to paint the plants that I grow in my Virginia garden, I added this little beauty six years ago, and began observing and drawing it two years later. Its leaf margins and flowers provide clues to its Rose family heritage. Trifoliate-oval-basal leaves unfold from burnt sienna sepals. In my garden, it reliably flowers in April on an umbel-like cluster of white blossoms atop a five inch scape. Bright yellow anthers darken after pollination and the weight of the growing flower receptacle, which we call the ‘fruit,’ weighs down its pedicle and it dangles downward. Its round-to-oval shape and the placement of its seeds (achenes) in sunken pits most distinguishes it from the other American strawberry native, the Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), in which the achenes sit on top of the conically shaped ‘fruit.’

The Virginia Strawberry, also known as the Scarlet Strawberry, multiplies in my garden, primarily through the development of hairy runners called stolons, which, when their tips touch the ground, cause plantlets to form. All plant parts except the upper leaf surfaces, flower petals, and roots are hairy – a white down when first emerging, which becomes burnt sienna and alizarin crimson-red with age. The leaves also experience a color transition over time, from apple-green, to medium bright green, and finally more olive green as the chlorophyll dissipates, including orange-red and burnt sienna margins and spots, with the older leaflets falling closer to the ground. Although I was not fortunate to observe a pollinator, one day I spied a munching cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni (Hubner), on the underside of a leaf. It is an annoying strawberry plant pest, especially if strawberries are grown next to lettuce, as mine was. All of these life-cycle observations informed my composition of the Virginia Strawberry portrait.

I have always loved the luminescent quality of watercolor paint on vellum and decided this was the method I would use. This portrait was my first completed painting using this technique, and did I learn a lot! Many studies and lots of trial-and-error were needed before I really understood and could reliably use the dry-brush painting method. In the beginning, I took off as much paint as I put on! Two experiences improved my skills. The first was reading and re-reading a timely and very helpful Botanical Artist article written by Denise Walser-Kolar about the basics of painting on vellum. Two years later, a weekend class with class with vellum expert Carol Woodin helped me to master more techniques so I could finish the painting. All-in-all, it took three years for me to complete this project, which was time well-spent, since I have come to love painting with watercolor on vellum.

As to Scarlet’s fate in my garden, the plants have multiplied in a very satisfying fashion, though it is rare that I beat the birds and chipmunks to sample ripened fruit in May. I went so far as to plant two strawberry pots near the kitchen door, thinking I might stand a better chance. Since I rarely win, I have resigned myself to enjoying the Virginia Strawberry’s year-round beauty and its ability to prevent erosion in my hilly garden.


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Worldwide-Malone-Virginia Strawberry

Fragaria virginiana

Virginia Strawberry

Watercolor on vellum

12 x 7.75

©2016 Eileen Malone-Brown

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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