Rare plant of the month – October 2018

Fragaria vesca var. muricata

The story behind this strange fruit comes from Dianne Nichol-Brown, who with husband David, is holder of the National Collection of Fragaria vesca.

Also known as the Plymouth strawberry, Fragaria vesca var. muricata, originated in damp woodlands around Plymouth in Devon, and has a long history, encompassing names such as Tradescant, Stearn and Linnaeus. It was first mentioned in ‘Gerard’s Herball or General history of plants’ in 1597 and disappearing until being found accidentally 50 years later.

Dianne writes:

Fruit of F v var muricata - cc polemonium.co.uk.cropped
Copyright: Polemonium.co.uk

‘We have in our Fragaria vesca collection, a very old taxon, which after being described by Gerard, disappeared from cultivation . It’s like a common wild strawberry, without the taste, and with green flowers – no pure white petals. Due to a naturally occurring genetic mutation, all of the floral parts have reverted to leaves (green leafy flowers) and the ‘fruits’ are covered in green spines instead of achenes.

Fragaria vesca var muricata - flower.med
Copyright: aphotoflora.com

In 1627 it was found by the botanist Tradescant being thrown away in a Plymouth garden, hence the name Plymouth Strawberry, and for 60-80 years was cultivated in all the botanical gardens of Europe (Darrow G 1966-Early History of the strawberry). Later in 1765, the 19 year old Antoine Nicholas Duchesne began the first ‘National’ Collection of strawberries in France.  He called this plant Fragaria sylvestris var. muricata, fully supported by Linnaeus who wrote to say he hoped more botanists would ‘choose their plant family and examine it most thoroughly.’ An early suggestion of dedicated plant collections?

In spite of its obvious historical significance, only one nursery is listed as selling this unusual strawberry, Dianne and David hope to have enough plants to start to sell it again in 2019.

This is a perfect example of what National Plant Collections are all about, rediscovering the unusual and unwanted – plants that are at the vagaries of interest and fashion are protected by being held in a National Collection and by our Plant Guardians. Not surprisingly it did appear in E A Bowles’ ‘Lunatic Assylum’ planting of weird plants at Myddelton House.

Plant and text from T Johnson, 1633
From T. Johnson’s 1633 revision of Gerard’s Herball cc. Dianne Nichol-Brown
  • John Parkinson had already described the plant in his Paradisus of 1629; a book that was the first volume to describe plants in English. For the next century or so the plant received various mentions in the literature but then became lost. It was not until 1880 that it appeared in print again, in the Flora of Plymouth (Briggs). Briggs noted it had not been seen for 150 years. but it was found again around this time in a Bristol garden.
  • According to Stearn’s ‘A gardeners dictionary of plant names’, muricata is “roughened with hard points like the shell of Murex the mollusc from which the costly purple dye of antiquity was obtained” (8000 snails yielded 1g of dye)

    drawing of the fruit 'Stern - a gardeners dictionary of plant names'small
    Drawing of the fruit (Stearn)

David and Dianne Nichol- Brown hold National Plant Collections of Fragaria vesca, Hakonechloa and Scientific National Collection of Polemonium, Collomia, Gilia & Leptodactylon (Polemoniaceae)