Anybody with any passing familiarity with candy knows that the flavors commonly attributed to various fruits have no real connection to the original. Banana, watermelon, mango, pineapple…none of the confectionary analogues come close to the originals, and don’t even get me started on the horror that is “blue raspberry.” The biggest and most unfair lie of all, though, comes with the overuse of the phrase “wild strawberry.” For those whom have never had the privilege of coming across a hill full of wild strawberries and picked every last tiny morsel, the term “abomination,” when used to describe the artificially flavored nightmares blithely stealing the name, may be a bit extreme. However, it’s also accurate.
This, in a roundabout way, explains my sad and regretful relationship with a common weed rather common in North Texas suburban environments. Potentilla indica is often known as “Indian strawberry“, but it’s best called “false strawberry”. Lying, tricksy, false. In a way, P.indica taught me one of the best object lessons of my entire life.
As far as a garden and lawn weed is concerned, you could do a lot worse than P. indica. In North Texas, at least, it’s not invasive, and it’s not particularly obnoxious, either. It grows low to the ground, in both sun and shade, but doing best in places with a little bit of protection from the worst of local weather. It usually shows thanks to seeds deposited by birds, and birds absolutely adore the ripe fruits. Other than that, it doesn’t choke out more desirable garden plants. It doesn’t attract mosquitoes or armadillos. It doesn’t jam up lawn mowers or Weedeaters. It has no spines or toxic sap, and in fact the leaves are edible both raw and cooked. Compared to most of the flora generally labeled “weeds” this area, P. indica isn’t exactly the visitor who wouldn’t leave.
The problem, of course, is that its leaves and runners are very similar to those of wild strawberries, and the green and ripe fruit are also very similar, thus explaining the common name. In fact, that resemblance explains why so many beginning gardeners let it move in. For those lucky enough to have tasted real wild strawberries, it’s completely understandable. Even though the fruit doesn’t look exactly the same, there’s that hope, you know?
That’s where P. indica gets you. The fruit isn’t toxic, or even noxious. It just tastes of disappointment. It tastes of school field trips to the bank. Getting school supplies for your birthday. Spending your Christmas bonus on a CT scan to check out that “anomaly” on your lung, and not even getting a chestburster alien for your trouble. Quitting your last job because of the insufferable idiot in the next cubicle who wouldn’t quit braying every last thing that passed through his microscopic mind, and discovering that your next-door neighbor at the new job is an even bigger and more obnoxious idiot. The premiere screening of Star Trek III. Ordering the latest E.L. Doctorow and discovering that Amazon.com shipped you the latest Cory Doctorow instead. With no expectations, false strawberries aren’t absolutely horrible: they’re mostly water, with the slightest hint of wintergreen, but nothing you’d want to cultivate in huge quantities. But with the memory of wild strawberries on the tip of your tongue while popping a false strawberry in your mouth? It’s the taste of ash and despair and your prom date’s mother setting a curfew of midnight because “that’s late enough”.
Yeah, I made the mistake of letting false strawberry get established in my yard, a third of my life ago. The lesson I learned was to take advantage of current thrills, not past regrets, so I never held it against P. indica for trapping me the same way it traps birds into spreading its seeds. I will say, though, that the foliage is quite tasty, both raw and cooked, and that guarantees that it won’t be overtaking my yard again any time soon. If only scarlet trumpetvine were so easy to deal with.