Barren Strawberry, Geum fragarioides, is a low-growing perennial wildflower that is native to Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Its foliage resembles strawberry leaves, but it produces no tasty fruit, hence the name "barren". Unfortunately, many native plant nurseries sold their customers a different species from Eurasia, Geum ternata, by mistake.
Barren Strawberry is not terribly common in gardens in our area, but it is both attractive and useful as a ground cover. It spreads by subsurface rhizomes and can form large colonies, knitting together the soil, holding moisture, and creating mounded clusters of leaves and flowers. Barren Strawberry can be part of an attractive native lawn, rock garden, or understory caterpillar landing zone, especially in part-shade areas. Its large leaves are nicely textured and partially evergreen, turning bronze in the fall. In the UP it is of special interest because it tolerates sandy soil and actually favors the sandy loam under pines.
But, never content to leave well-enough alone, the nursery industry apparently introduced another species, Geum ternata, native to Siberia, Europe, and much of Asia. This species is very similar to Geum fragarioides, so much so that the nursery industry, particularly out east, did not differentiate between the two, and Geum ternata was (is?) widely sold as native barren strawberry. It probably helped that G. ternata has flowers that are slightly larger and more prominent that G. fragarioides.
I became aware of this issue shortly after we started offering Barren Strawberry. I was contacted by a Pennsylvania nursery who wanted to buy from us in order to replace the Siberian version they had been selling as native. I quickly checked to be sure ours was native and was relieved to find that it is. I have since been contacted by several other nurseries in the same boat. The calls reminded me that several of our customers asked us for Barren Strawberry early in our operation before we had any to offer. I assume those customers sourced Barren Strawberry from elsewhere, and because the nursery industry seems to just now be noticing the identification problem, I worry that people in the UP may have accidentally purchased the non-native variety.
So how can we be sure we are offering the native variety at our nursery? And how can you check to see if Barren Strawberry you purchased or might purchase is the native variety? It is difficult to find reliable data, or even texts or sites that acknowledge the problem. Most of the publications or websites I commonly use to help with plant identification do not raise the concern of misidentification. Michigan Flora makes no mention of the Siberian species. Minnesota Wildflowers, usually very helpful in pointing out potential mistakes in identification, warns only against mistaking it for Wild Strawberry. Because of this, and because all of the nurseries who have contacted me to purchase my plants have been out east, I hope that the Siberian species has not made it to our area.
Illinois Wildflowers has one of the few discussions of the problem and the best overview of identification. There is also a blog post from a New York nursery that discusses the issue. Between their comparisons, bits of data from other sources, and various botanical descriptions of G. fragarioides and G. ternata, here is how I differentiate between the native and non-native Barren Strawberry:
Native Geum fragarioides
Siberian Geum ternata
Petals are more narrow and the sepals are usually visible between each one
Petals are wide, almost round, often overlapping and hiding the sepals
Sepals have no noticeable bractlets
Sepals have significant bractlets
Somewhat less lobed
Somewhat more lobed
Clears it right up, doesn't it?
Perhaps not. Let's do a quick review of flower anatomy:
Sepals are modified leaves around the flower, usually protecting it as a it develops and then opening around it when it blooms. A bract is a modified leaf that has a reproductive purpose, and a bractlet is a little bract. The best way to tell the Siberian from the native Barren Strawberry is to look for bractlets on the sepals (pictures below). In addition, the native Barren Strawberry has narrower petals usually with space in between each petal, and the flower stalks often protrude from one side of the plant instead of extending above the foliage as for Siberian. Let's take a look at some pictures (sourced from Openverse using using the scientific name and matching the botanical descriptions found elsewhere. Open the picture to view the copyright information. The photo without copyright is ours):
Here are some photographs of live plants:
For those of you in the know, Barren Strawberry was previously in the genus Waldsteinia, but according to Michigan Flora, genetic testing has identified it as Geum. If doing your own research, you may find more information under Waldsteinia.
Barren Strawberry is a unique and interesting plant. The foliage alone makes it worth adding to your garden, especially with the addition of the cheerful yellow flowers. Now that we have taken a look at the characteristics of the native Geum fragarioides, shop with confidence at at www.upnativeplants.com.