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Credit: Richard Hebda

Strawberry blite

Easy to plant from seed, strawberry blite is a striking ornamental for sites with marginal fertility – and a colourful addition to your salad

DESPITE THE REBIRTH of gardening with perennials, most of the herbaceous plants sold in garden centres today are annuals such as petunias, marigolds and stocks. Most of British Columbia’s native herbaceous plants grow as perennials, but there are a few annuals among them. One, strawberry blite (Chenopodium capitatum), can be grown from seed available from commercial sources.

Strawberry blite is really quite a striking and remarkable plant. It’s not often seen in the wild but when encountered is never forgotten. Overall this species of the goosefoot family grows erectly up to a metre (40 in.) tall. It arises from a stout taproot, forming a somewhat reddish stem that branches from the base. Leaves occur along the stem, often to the tip of the branches, generally decreasing in size. They are up to 10 cm (4 in.) long, fleshy and shaped like arrowheads, with a pointed tip and broad base. The margins can be relatively smooth to notably lobed. The surfaces on both sides are greenish and look a bit like those of the more widely grown lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album).

The striking feature of strawberry blite is its reproductive structures, which resemble in both size and colour bright-red deformed strawberries. The greenish flowers are densely packed in the axils of the leaves toward the ends of branches. Each tiny flower is less than 1 mm across and consists of three outside parts that surround three miniature stamens and an ovary with two stigmas. As these flowers mature, they transform into a strawberry-shaped mass of fleshy flattened red fruits, each with a single dry seed.

The species occurs throughout B.C. east of the Coast Mountains and on Vancouver Island. Elsewhere the range stretches from Alaska and Yukon to Nova Scotia and southward on the west coast to California. In the “wild” it grows on dry to moderately moist disturbed sites, largely where there are people. Typical habitats include roadsides, gardens and cultivated fields.

Strawberry blite is a striking ornamental for sites with marginal fertility as well as garden beds where you might want an interesting form or splash of colour. It is also suitable for the vegetable garden under conditions where you might grow beets or amaranth. Seeds of this native are sold as strawberry spinach, a packet of which I will be raising this year.

The instructions for cultivation are very brief, suggesting one sow the seeds directly on the soil surface after the last frost. Having seen the plant thriving on the shoulders of roadsides, I do not think you have to wait until after the last frost, though the germination may not take place until it is warm enough. I would also cover the seeds with a trace of soil. Once established the plant will reseed from year to year, provided that the plot is not overgrown by dense grass and herbaceous growth.

B.C. First Nations people, especially in the Interior, used the red fruits of strawberry blite to make a dye; another common name is Indian paint. The fruits were also crushed by young children and applied on the face as a kind of makeup. In our modern gardens, the fresh leaves and shoots of this striking plant are a colourful addition to a salad. The shoots and leaves can be steamed too, just like lamb’s-quarters. My seed packet encourages the grower to eat the “delicious” berries. They do not taste sweet however!

If you are looking for annual colour, flavour and a conversation piece, then try raising strawberry blite from seed in your garden. Though it may not taste like a fruit, it will add interesting colour and taste to your salads.

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

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