• Calyx

Differential Morphology: Mock Strawberry & Wild Strawberry

Updated: May 24, 2021

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 force the Mock Strawberry to fit our worldview. One where abundance only exists in the naive daydreams of small children and we must settle for purchased sweetness or nothing at all. If we only knew however, of the existence of the gifts in nature, or of the Wild Strawberry.


This is why I teach. When we can see past through the green wall, it reminds us that nature is not “out there” and it is not some in-accessible fantasy. It roots us back into the land, amongst our kin, the flora and fauna. When we can see the trees through the forest, so to speak, and acknowledge each individual life and their relationship to us, it reminds us not only of the gifts bestowed us but also of our responsibilities as gift receivers. We cannot fully re-enter the cycle of reciprocity until we return to our kin. We cannot expect to raise a generation of generous children if we douse their innate sense of abundance. We must show them the gifts of the land as well as how to tend them. We must raise them among the Wild Strawberries.


And so, here I leave you with a morphological summary of Mock Strawberry and Wild Strawberry, as well as some differential characteristics of Woodland Strawberry. Because philosophical water doesn’t turn to wine on its own.


Morphological Characteristics of the Rose Family (Rosaceae)

  • The flowers are bisexual and actinomorphic (radially symmetric)

  • 5 petals

  • 5 connate (fused) sepals

  • Numerous stamens

  • Flowers have a hypanthium (an enlarged receptacle)

  • Leaves often oval, serrated, bearing stipules


Morphological Characteristics of the Fragaria and Potentilla fruits


Mock Strawberry Aggregate Fruit

Both Strawberry and Potentilla have aggregate accessory fruits (Pseudocarps or “False Fruits”), which, unlike true fruits, don't develop from an ovary. Accessory fruits develop adjacent to the carpel (female reproductive organ). In the case of strawberries and potentillas, the fleshy part of the fruit is the receptacle, not a swollen ovary, and the true fruits are actually the numerous achenes which cover the outside of the receptacle. Potentilla fruits tend to be dry, with P. indica displaying some of the most fleshy and colorful fruits of the genus.


Potentilla indica - Mock Strawberry


Morphology:

  • Prostate, forms flowering shallow crowns and spreads by stolons & adventitious roots

  • Stolons are light green to reddish

  • Trifoliate leaves

  • Leaflet shape broadly ovate or obovate

  • Leaflet margins coarsely crenate-serrate

  • Leaflet venation is conspicuously pinnate

  • Leaflets ¾–1¾" long and ½–1¼" wide

  • Appressed white hairs

  • Dark green

  • Petioles 1.5-6” long, petiolules (leaflet stems) usually ~1-2mm (up to 6mm)

  • Flowers

  • Solitary inflorescence

  • ¾" diameter

  • 5 yellow petals, obovate with flat or slight obtusely notched top, sepals highly visible beneath

  • 5 green triangular sepals that are as long as the petals, and green rectangular shaped bracts with 3 teeth

  • Numerous stamens with yellow anthers, and a central yellow superior ovary with numerous pistils

  • Numerous carpels

  • Fruits

  • Numerous small red achenes embedded on the outer surface of the red fleshy receptacle

  • ~½" diameter

  • Shape globoid to ovoid

  • Sepals turn upward around the fruit and become red

  • Fruits somewhat dry with a small hint of flavor




Ecological Interactions:

  • Non-native species

  • Fruits eaten by birds, although less desirable to native birds than those of Fragaria virginiana. Flowers attract small bees and flies.


Medicinal Applications

  • Potentilla leaf is a cooling astringent diuretic

  • Febrifuge (fever reducing)

  • Antidiarrheal

  • Somewhat styptic (slows bleeding), particularly the root

  • An excellent remedy for the skin and mucous membranes… useful as a gentle wash for conjunctivitis, sunburn, inflamed gums, skin infections and many other skin conditions

  • Fruits & leaves are nutritious, high in Vitamins A, C, and E, potassium manganese, and copper, with notable amounts of protein


Fragaria virginiana - Wild Strawberry



Morphology

  • Prostate, forms flowering shallow crowns and spreads by stolons & adventitious roots

  • Stolons are light green to reddish

  • A bit more upright than P. indica (4-7” tall)

  • Trifoliate leaves

  • Leaflet shape obovate to oval

  • Leaflet margins coarsely serrate

  • Leaflet venation is conspicuously pinnate

  • Leaflets 2½" long and 1½" wide

  • Upper surface glabrous, sometimes slightly pubescent on underside

  • Medium to dark green

  • Petioles up to 6” long, petiolules usually ~1mm

  • Flowers

  • Umbellate cyme inflorescence with 2-15 flowers (usually 4-6)

  • Reddish green, pubescent peduncles up to 5" long

  • ½"- ¾" diameter

  • 5 white petals, round, sepals more obscured beneath

  • 5 green lanceolate sepals and 5 green sepal-like linear-lanceolate bracts, both joined at the flower base

  • Flower types vary from bisexual (male & female parts), functionally staminate (male) or functionally pistillate (female)

  • Pistillate flowers have many pistils which grow from the domed central yellow-green superior ovary

  • Staminate flowers have 20-35 stamens with pale yellow filaments and yellow anthers Numerous carpels

  • Fruits

  • Numerous small red achenes embedded in shallow pits on the outer surface of the red fleshy receptacle

  • ~½" diameter

  • Shape globoid to ovoid

  • Sepals turn upward around the fruit

  • Fruits sweet & tart



Ecological Interactions

  • Native species

  • Attract numerous pollinators including many species of bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and beetles

  • Plants pollinated by native wild bee species yield larger berries than those pollinated by honeybees

  • Highly valued by upland game birds such as the Ring-necked Pheasant and Ruffed Grouse and songbirds such as the Eastern Towhee and American Crow

  • Both the fruits and the leaves are consumed by a wide range of mammals and turtles including the Virginia Opossum, Eastern Cottontail, Eastern Chipmunk, the American Black Bear, the Eastern Box Turtle, and many others


Medicinal Applications

  • Very similar to Potentilla indica

  • Strawberry leaf is a cooling astringent diuretic

  • Febrifuge (fever reducing)

  • Antidiarrheal (the root is the most astringent and and thus best part to use for this)

  • Wash for conjunctivitis, sunburn, and inflamed gums

  • Fruits & leaves are nutritious, high in Vitamins A, C, and E, potassium manganese, and copper. Strawberry fruits are one of the few fruits containing iodine.

  • Like many remedies in the Rose family, Strawberry is medicine for the emotional heart. There is a quality of softening and child-like joy that can be associated with strawberry


Differential Characteristics:


  • Potentilla indica - Mock Strawberry: Yellow flowers; solitary inflorescence; fruits face upward; achenes scattered on top of the receptacle surface; fruits globoid to ovoid; leaflets smaller ¾–1¾" long and ½–1¼" wide; petioles 1.5-6” long, petiolules (leaflet stems) 1-2mm

  • Fragaria virginiana - Wild Strawberry: White flowers; umbellate cyme inflorescence; fruits hang down; sepals and bracts become appressed when fruiting; achenes in shallow depression on the receptacle; fruits globoid to ovoid; terminal tooth of the center leaflet is narrower and usually shorter than the adjacent teeth, leaflets larger 2½" long and 1½" wide; petioles up to 6” long, petiolules ~1mm

  • Fragaria vesca* - Woodland Strawberry (not shown): White flowers, fruits hang down; sepals and bracts spread or become reflexed, rather than appressed when fruiting; achenes scattered on top of the receptacle surface rather in shallow depressions; fruits elongated and conical in shape; terminal tooth of the center leaflet is as wide or wider than the adjacent teeth and usually longer; leaflets 1-2½" long, ¾-2" across; petioles up to 2-6” long, petiolules sessile


*There is a native American variety of Woodland Strawberry Fragaria vesca americana as well as a European variety Fragaria vesca vesca. The Common Cultivated Strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, is a cross between F. vesca and F. chiloensis, the Coastal Strawberry.


**Author's note: Ethnobotanist Marc Williams recently suggested the name "Strawberry Fruited Cinquefoil" in place of Mock Strawberry, which I think is much more suited to its character than a name describing that which it is not.

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