Differential Morphology: Mock Strawberry & Wild Strawberry

Updated: May 24

Mock Strawberries have become something of a relic of my childhood. When I was a child, I was under the impression that the vast majority of wild plants were not edible, and the few plants that wouldn’t strike you down on the first bite must not be worth the trouble. If they were, why would we bother with grocery stores? The Mock Strawberry confirmed my suspicions. Imagine my disappointment as a child, finding a strawberry growing in my very own lawn, free for my taking, only to taste it and hardly detect any hint of any flavor at all, much less strawberry. I marveled at the wondrous agricultural technology that somehow turned what I assumed to be this insipid, seedy ancestor into the voluptuous strawberries I enjoyed from the grocery store. Nevertheless, the anticipation of magical wild food dissipated in my mouth, leaving only the tasteless, crunchy achenes to masticate as I contemplated how unfair it was that fairy tales, like the ones where children go picking berries in the forest, are not real. I would go on to eat many more Mock Strawberries after that, but under the impression that enjoyment of them was relegated only to those who were particularly skilled at imaginative play.

Photo Credit: Jaybird Tignor

Fast forward twenty years and I discovered that these little berries are not actually strawberries and are not the ancestor to modern cultivated strawberries. They are an entirely different genus. I also learned that there was in fact a true Wild Strawberry species, which too was not related to the Mock Strawberry. But their fates are forever intertwined.

The Mock Strawberry, or Strawberry Fruited Cinquefoil**, Potentilla indica syn. Duchesnea indica, also bears the common names False Strawberry or Indian Strawberry. The term Indian Strawberry and specific epithet indica may refer to its southeast Asian origins, however it has never been established whether or not it originally came from India. The term “Indian” may also refer to the term “false.” You may be familiar with this offensive use of the term, as in the phrase “Indian summer,” meaning an unseasonably warm spell in Autumn, or “Indian giver,” meaning a person who gives a gift but then wants it back or expects something in return. The irony of this application of the term to Mock Strawberry did not fully hit me until I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s passage about Wild Strawberry in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer explains the term “Indian giver” is a misinterpretation of the gift giving customs of native cultures, in which it is assumed that the recipient understands gift giving as an act of reciprocity. As in any organic system, gifts are part of a closed loop and elicit a responsibility among the recipient. In the capitalist colonial paradigm, property ownership is valued over reciprocity and gifts are viewed as a river that flows from one place to another, never to return; neither of these exist in nature.

“Strawberries first shaped my view of the world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward, you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it happens. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery--as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source… Gifts from the earth or from each other their establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries… That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage. The field made a gift of berries to us and we made a gift of them to our father. The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.”

Kimmerer speaks of being raised by Strawberries, and how they shaped her worldview early on. I never knew of the existence of true Wild Strawberries as a child, and certainly never tasted them. I was not raised with the economic values of the gift economy or of abundance. I was raised with the traditional economic values of colonial capitalism; scarcity. I was raised by the Mock Strawberries. Kimmerer mentions, "Wild strawberries fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not." Mock Strawberries gathered in in the wild do fit the definition of a gift, however what they teach us about gifts is quite different, especially when they're the only semblance of a Wild Strawberry one has ever known. In a world where succulent, sweet strawberries can only be purchased, either from a grocery store or from the nursery to be grown in the garden, the abundance of the Great Mother is obscured beneath the barrier of the “green wall.” The green wall not only represents the tangle of plants that can’t be distinguished by the untrained eye, but also the separateness of us from nature, and the ignorance that follows. This disjunct from nature leads to feelings of confusion, homesickness, isolation, and often despair. It leads to a sense of scarcity.

You see, it is not the Mock Strawberry itself that is lacking, nor does it deserve our reproach. It is our own ignorance that separates us from feelings of abundance. The Mock Strawberry serves its purpose and fulfills its duty to itself (and to its ecosystem, regardless of we understand precisely what that means in the context of a non-native species). It is a gift, in its own unique way. But it’s flavor disappoints us because we are expecting it to taste like a cultivated Strawberry, and that it is not. We are trying to