You may have noticed this little strawberry plant sprouting yellow blossoms in your yard and wondered where it might have come from, since you're sure you didn't plant it. Then you notice these juicy strawberries on it that look a bit different from actual strawberries since their seeds stick out so much more. You pick them and discover that they taste rather bland and are nothing like you expected. There’s a good chance that what you’ve just eaten is a mock strawberry. We're going to go over this little, unexpected, and often unknown plant, but before we do, we want to tell you not to worry — you haven't just poisoned yourself.
What’s a Mock Strawberry?
Mock strawberries are also known as Indian strawberries or snakeberries, depending on where you’re located. This name can be confusing for some because "snakeberry" is also the nickname of a poisonous plant in the nightshade family. This often leads people to believe that mock strawberries are toxic when not eaten in moderation.
Mock strawberry plants are decidedly invasive in nature. Scientifically, the plant is known as Duchesnea indica, but it's also sometimes referred to as Potentilla indica. This genus is different from that of real strawberries, Fragaria, though they are both members of the rose family.
As you can see, they look just like strawberry plants (hence the name). They hug the ground, produce runners with solitary flowers that come up from their stems, and have leaves that mimic those of true strawberry plants. They are usually about two and a half inches tall, though they can be longer than a foot if you factor in the runners. Their flowers have five petals and are yellow in color, while their compound leaves have jagged edges like teeth. Both the stems and leaves appear hairy. This plant forms a fruit that looks like a spiky seeded strawberry but lacks the flavor and juiciness of the real thing. Some people claim that they taste like watermelon, but many others just find them bland.
Where Did They Come From?
Mock strawberries were initially found on the Indian subcontinent, which explains their species name indica. They were brought over to the United States to be used as ornamental plants, because they do make for some pretty ground cover when they're in bloom. Due to their invasive nature, they can often pop up in areas where they haven’t been planted by gardeners. Squirrels and other animals often help these plants get around by transporting their seeds to new areas. In fact, they can be found pretty much all over the United States and Canada.
Uses of Mock Strawberries
The good news is that those mock strawberries you have popping up in your yard aren’t a complete waste. They are actually good for a few things. As we already mentioned, they make for great-looking ground cover. Ground cover (i.e. cover crops) helps keep your soil moist and pumps nutrients back into it after the growing season has ended. It also helps keep out unwanted weeds.
It’s important to note that mock strawberries are not poisonous. Some people even use the plant for medicinal purposes (it's particularly popular in traditional Chinese medicine). For instance, you can make a poultice out of mock strawberries to treat eczema and other skin conditions.
Some people dry the plant's leaves and make them into a tea. The berries are also great to use when you're short on other varieties and in the middle of making jam or jelly, since their flavor likely won’t impede the taste of the berries you’re mainly using. Some even like making mock strawberries into a juice or mild jelly all on their own. In fact, 100 ml of mock strawberry juice contains an impressive 6.3 mg of Vitamin C.
Harvesting Mock Strawberries
You’ll want to collect mock strawberries just as you would regular strawberries. To protect your plants, you'll want to be careful when removing ripe berries. Wait until they're juicy red, appear bloated, bending back the base of the leaves around them (the calyx), and their seeds are spread out. You can then either wash them and try eating them or store them for a short period of time to use in your cooking later on. It’s often a good idea to wait to rinse them until you’re ready to eat or use them, since washing usually results in a faster rate of decay.
Now you have a better idea of what those little yellow strawberry-like plants are in your backyard. They may not have been the surprise strawberries you were hoping for, but for many, they still offer some nice benefits to both the yard and the kitchen.
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