Free-Range Strawberries


Mock (or Indian) strawberry ~ Duchesnea indica

At Froberg Farms in Alvin, Texas, the annual strawberry picking is in full swing. Blemish free and filled with fresh-from-the-field sweetness, berries can be purchased in the farm store, but the fun lies in taking a bucket into the fields and gathering the fruit by hand. Fields no longer are mulched with straw — a traditional practice sometimes said to have given strawberries their name — but not much else has changed when it comes to planting and harvesting.

The strawberries we enjoy with our shortcake and ice cream are a cross between a native North American wild strawberry, Fragaria virginica, and a South American native, Fragaria chiloensis.

Wild strawberry can be found in far northeast Texas, while another native strawberry, Fragaria vesca, thrives in our more northerly states. In Texas, F. vesca is listed only in Culbertson County, in the western part of the state; even there, it’s considered rare. Also known as the wild (or woodland) strawberry, it’s smaller than F. virginica, but still tasty.

A third ‘strawberry’ common in my part of the world is the mock strawberry, or Indian strawberry: Duchesnea indica. It would be easy to assume this plant’s name refers to Native Americans, but in fact it takes its name from the nation of India, from which it was introduced as an ornamental plant.

Much smaller than other strawberries, it’s round and perfectly edible. Unfortunately, while true wild strawberries are juicy and pleasantly sweet/tart, mock strawberries tend to be dry and bland.

Still, the dainty species has attractive foliage, flowers, and fruit. Its flowers are yellow, rather than white, and the trifoliate leaves are lower-growing and smaller in size, making it an acceptable ground cover where conditions are right. Like true strawberries, its seeds are produced on the outside of the fruit, and in the case of the mock strawberry, the effect can be dramatic.

Indian strawberry  flower

Mock strawberry also tends to spread aggressively, leading some to declare it planta non grata.  Shel Silverstein, ever the philosopher, asks a few interesting questions before making the point more humorously:

Are wild strawberries really wild?
Will they scratch an adult, will they snap at a child?
Should you pet them, or let them run free where they roam?
Could they ever relax in a steam-heated home?
Can they be trained to not growl at the guests?
Will a litterbox work, or would they make a big mess?
You’ve been warned, and I will not be blamed
if your Wild Strawberries cannot be tamed.”
                                                              ~   Shel Silverstein, from “Where the Sidewalk Ends”


Comments always are welcome.
For a helpful discussion of drupes, berries, accessory fruits, and achenes, visit the Botany Word of the Week at Flowery Prose.

68 thoughts on “Free-Range Strawberries

  1. Oh, I love that Silverstein piece. That’s a gem. And so are your photos. The strawberry leaves I didn’t cut back in my garden seem to have weathered relatively well and I’m hoping come June I’ll see lots of those sweet white flowers (wish they were yellow like yours!) and sweet berries. Store berries are never good unless you add so much sugar it takes away the whole point of eating the delicious, sweet berries! This will be my first full year crop if they work. Keep your fingers crossed!

    1. Shel Silverstein’s one of those (like Maurice Sendak) I didn’t come across until adulthood. By the time their books gained popularity, I was almost out of high school, and absorbed by other things. It’s been great fun getting to know his work.

      Strawberries obviously can tolerate cool weather, so yours may do fine. I’ve almost stopped buying store berries, although one Texas grocery chain has improved the situation by contracting with specific growers for their entire crop. You have to watch to be sure the berries aren’t overripe, but they can be very good. Still, fresh from the vine is best. Our dewberries are in bloom now, so cobbler season isn’t far away!

  2. Too bad mock strawberries are dry and bland. Sure enough, I fell for the name Indian, thinking of American Indian, till I saw the species name indica, which applies only to India. Columbus’s mistake would have the New World not be indiapendent from the Old.

    1. I came close to publishing bad information about these mock strawberries until I noticed their different genus. While I was involved in photographing them, a passing family stopped to see what had drawn my attention. They called them Indian strawberries, and that name got me to Mark Vorderbruggen’s foraging site. He always includes scientific names, so that straightened me out.

      I did a quick search to see how many binomial names include indica. There are a lot — including at least one I found (Ipomoea indica) that carries the specific epithet because it’s native to the West Indies.

      1. I found one website that says this: “The origin of Ipomoea indica is unclear as it appears to be pan-tropical.” One possibility is that whoever applied the species name thought the plant originated in India, even if that wasn’t the case. Or perhaps, as you mentioned, the person was crediting the West Indies. There are plenty of mistaken names out there. One that comes to mind is a common milkweed in the northeastern states, Asclepias syriaca, which certainly is not from Syria.

  3. Strawberry-picking time already?? That won’t arrive here for months! When I was little, I used to go with my folks to pick berries, then help with putting them up for present and future eating. No more. I don’t like the things — something about those seeds being on the outside that makes them taste like a whiskery old man! — and I figure if I won’t eat them, I shouldn’t have to pick or clean them!

    1. I do believe you’re the first person I’ve known who doesn’t like strawberries, Debbie. We all have our preferences, though, and I agree: if you’re not going to eat them, you shouldn’t have to mess with them. I’ve been eyeing the developing dewberries, watching for places to pick that are easier to get to and perhaps less likely to have snakes. We’ve had enough rain that it might be a good year for them — there certainly are masses of blooms developing.

      Late January always has been the beginning of strawberry season here, as long as I’ve been in the area. It varies a bit, but everyone starts watching the farm’s website about mid-January to see how things are developing.

  4. My son loves strawberries and would be delighted if mock strawberries were as delicious as real strawberries! gorgeous colors on those photos!

    1. I was pleased with the photos. I had a hard time finding a flower that was open and attractive, but I really liked this one for the cold-singed edges of the leaves. Does Forest like dewberries, too? It looks like there’s going to be a good crop this year.

    1. Late January’s usually when Froberg’s opens their fields, or early February. I took these photos on January 25, and there already were a lot of ripe berries, so the wild and cultivated must be on the same schedule. The thought of your dogs munching their way through your berries tickles me.

    1. I learned a lot about strawberries myself while writing this. I think the taste of real strawberries can’t be beat, but the shape of these mock strawberries is amazing. It would take a lot to make a cobbler, though; they’re not even a half-inch in diameter. You’d think they’d be easy to tame — but maybe not.

    1. Not to fear — I know where you can get more homemade vanilla, not to mention some vanilla bean or French vanilla! Unfortunately (but reasonably), Froberg’s doesn’t allow the pups in the fields, but if you’re out that way, call ahead and see if they have picked berries available. I can’t remember the price of a pound — $4.00, maybe — but they surely are delicious.

    1. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a strawberry wrangler? Maybe that’s what we are, when we round up those little beasties for our shortcakes and sundaes!

      1. The ones I’ve been getting int he store lately are tasteless though. They’re red, but they must be gassed like the tomatoes. We used to have plenty of “U Pick ‘Em” farms around here, but now they’ve all been built into housing developments.

  5. The photos are wonderful, Linda … and I have never seen a strawberry like this one before. Sadly strawberry picking appears to have died out here. I loved to go with my folks and sister when I was a kid, getting all juicy red-lipped as we filled our baskets to the brim. That lovely poem so brings a smile to my face, as do the memories your lovely post evokes :)

    1. It’s a shame that the practice of picking’s less common there, Pete. Are the strawberries not so available, or have people simply given up the practice? When I was a child, cherry, plum, and apple picking were my treats. Now, it’s blackberries, dewberries, peaches, and strawberries. There’s such a wealth of good, fresh food available, and there’s nothing more fun than a day spent picking. Of course, fruit-picking as an occupation is something else. That’s hard, tiring work.

      1. I think the strawberry picking here has generally declined over the years. I remember taking my son when he was young and he really enjoyed it. But we struggled to find other strawberry fields as the years went on. Maybe it is the sign of the times, and people are so busy they don’t have the leisure time like they used to, or it had become non-profitable for the growers. There are wild blackberries of course, and my son used to enjoy picking those when he was young. It is lovely to know there is so much fresh produce for you to pick over there, and of all kinds!

  6. I’ve had a special place in my heart for Shel Silverstein ever since I got my copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends (which came out in 1974). Two of my favorites of his are My Beard and, of course, A Boy Named Sue.

    1. Good heavens. I didn’t have a clue that Johnny Cash didn’t write “A Boy Named Sue.” I became familiar with the song through his version, and assumed he was the author. I just read its history on Wikipedia, and the backstory’s fascinating — especially that Jean Shepherd played a role. Live and learn, as they say.

    1. Isn’t it funny how some memories will stay with us for years — decades, even? Say ‘rhubarb’ to me, and the first thing I think of is the way we used the leaves as umbrellas for our dolls. You were lucky to have the wild strawberries; I’ll bet the memories are as sweet as the berries were.

        1. Yep. In our house, strawberry-rhubarb was a favored combination. In fact, American Spoon Foods sells strawberry-rhubarb jam that tastes just like what my mom used to make.

  7. That’s a neat close-up. I cannot get away from the idea that it’s a craft project – – a styrofoam ball covered with decorative red-headed pins, or they glued on gummy candies.
    A couple of farmers have tried growing them hydroponically – – styrofoam baskets, stacked vertically, with a metal rod up the middle for support. A sterile growing medium, like perlite or vermiculite, and then drip-fed with plastic tubing. This sounds pretty unappealing, and maybe you’re thinking, I bet the berries are tasteless – – nope! delicious, and if you’re careful, pretty much free of the mold/fungus you get on damp ground, without using any chemicals.
    That’s a funny poem, having the berries growl at guests made me laugh. :)

    1. I remember when it was a Big Thing to make Christmas decorations in just that way: styrofoam balls with ribbons and decorative pins. Of course, we also followed the early custom of studding oranges with whole cloves, and adding a ribbon as a hanger. Now that I look at this mock strawberry again, that orange-with-cloves similarity’s really striking.

      There’s a couple at my local farmers’ market that offers hydroponically grown tomatoes, and while they aren’t quite the same as fresh from the summer vine, they’re close. I’ve never heard of strawberries being done that way, but I don’t know why it wouldn’t work. If it’s done in greenhouses, I imagine it extends the growing season, too.

      In Silverstein’s world, anthropomorphizing works, even with the fruits and veggies!

  8. I had no idea there were all these strawberries over there. I really like the image of the flower of the ‘Indian’ berry. The texture of the fruit is really different from the more familiar ones.

    Personally, when referring to PR, I like saying from the ‘Greater Antilles’ better than from the ‘West Indies’. The etymology of ‘Antillia’ is that it was a legendary island lying west of Spain and Portugal.

    I agree that Columbus’ mistakes were colossal, as he thought he was actually arriving in India. Columbus wanted fame and fortune. Columbus’ contract with the Spanish rulers promised that he could keep 10 percent of whatever riches he found, along with a noble title and the governorship of any lands he should encounter. Today, Columbus has a controversial legacy, and much has been written on the catastrophic consequences from his journeys to the Antilles.

    1. I knew there were wild strawberries, but I had no idea there were multiple species. There’s yet another that grows out west, and I know there’s another ‘mock’ strawberry out there that isn’t edible at all. I’m sure some were called strawberries just because they’re red and basically the same shape, even though they aren’t in the same genus.

      I’d never heard that about ‘Antillia’ being a legendary island. That’s quite interesting. It’s also been interesting learning more about Columbus over the years. When I learned the old verse (“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”) no one told us about contracts or keeping a percentage of the riches. I guess we assumed he just got bored one year and decided to sail off into the sunset!

  9. The berry looks like a beautiful art-glass bead with the striking contrast between the scarlet and white. Seems odd they have yellow flowers, and yet produce such a rampantly scarlet fruit.

    1. Those plants! You just can’t depend on them for consistency. The yellow flowers put me off the trail for a while. I thought I was looking at some kind of buttercup.

      I like your description of the fruit as a bead. It does have the appearance of art glass — but it also could be a pom-pom, with little knit ‘thingies’ covering the surface.

  10. Picking berries was part of my childhood and we gorged on them. No one ever cautioned us about washing them, and all the attendant dangers of not doing so. We also ate the apples off trees that had perhaps been seeded by animals at some point. We picked mushrooms, gathered nuts. The world has changed!

    1. There’s nothing better than sun-warmed berries fresh from the vine. We never washed them then, and I don’t worry unnecessarily about it now. I had a friend in grade school who would eat spoonsful of dirt for a nickel, which he then spent at the penny candy counter. It didn’t hurt him a bit, and he’s still clicking along, so I can’t imagine our unwashed apples or berries are going to do much harm: provided they’re not from a place saturated in chemicals.

    2. When I was a kid, we used to pick basketfuls of mushrooms from the surrounding fields, even sometimes from our own garden. Yum!

      1. When I was still in Iowa, morel mushrooms were my favorite. We prepared them simply (dredged in flour, sauteed in butter) but they were delicious. Yum, indeed!

  11. We used to pick strawberries occasionally in the south of Scotland and you sometimes see pick-your-own fields here too, but these days so many of the fields seem to be those enormous areas full of cereals or whatever. I loved the verse, especially the idea of trying to train wild strawberries not to growl at guests!

    1. Just think — if strawberries growled at strangers, we could use them as watch-fruits! I wonder if a strawberry could send a troublemaker running?

      I was in the country this weekend, and the planting’s started already. In fact, much of the corn’s already up and looking good. Strawberry fields are good, but we’re not the right climate here to grow them commercially. We’ll leave that to California!

      1. People could have signs on their gate saying, ‘Beware the strawberries – they bite!’. Hehe!

  12. Silverstein was quite the wit and always good for a chuckle. I will no longer buy the cross country shipped strawberries. They are not very tasty and the local when in season are large, red and so juicy. It’s a much greater treat waiting for them to show up in June here and then savor the memory until the next June comes along. We do have wild berries but as with all other opportunities to forage I pass. I’d rather have fat sleepy bears hibernating…and healthy energetic birds migrating. But ours are not so widespread as yours, I don’t think so the harvest here would be meager. I am sure our pick your own fields are filled with human altered cultivars.
    Those are two very nicely detailed portraits, Linda.

    1. I don’t worry at all about foraging for our dewberries. The crop is usually good, and this year it looks to be especially so. Birds and small mammals eat them, and some insects nibble around them, but there’s plenty for everyone. Besides — dewberry picking isn’t for the faint of heart. Those vines are very well armored, and not everyone wants to don long sleeves, long pants, and boots to go get berries.

      I was happy that the berry photo turned out especially well. It’s such a small, odd little thing, but the cuteness factor is right up there.

      1. People forage here too. I’ve no quarrel with that, it’s just not my choice. When Mary Beth and I first moved in together there was an open field next to us and she would go out there and pick low bush blueberries every day while they were in season. We ended up having to buy a freezer because they took up all the room in the fridge one. And her job was very stressful to picking for a period of time relaxed her. I doubt that animals are starving for human foraging but I just choose to not.

        There’s a lot of cute in smallness. MB is 5′ tall and when soaking wet maybe 90 pounds. Cute as a button. :)

  13. March seems very early for strawberries, but I guess not in Texas. Picking your own berries is a favorite activity in many German regions, too, but not usually before late May or June. As a child, the German equivalent of Angel food cake with strawberries was one of my favorites.

    1. Strange as it seemed to me when I moved down here, the end of January is when we either have berries or are anticipating berries. I stopped to talk with a farmer about his fields this weekend, and his corn, planted two weeks ago, is already high enough to be photographed: about 4″ or so.

      My favorite is strawberry shortcake — but our shortcakes are biscuit-like. Topped with whipped cream, there’s nothing better. Another dessert we’d have on special occasions were individual meringue shells filled with custard or ice cream, topped with strawberries — so good!

      1. We all know that TX is different in many respects, so the early berry harvest shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
        All your dessert options sound scrumptious. It’s a good thing I already brushed my teeth for the night, otherwise I might have to raid the fridge for something sweet!

    1. I can guarantee you that the ones you grow are tastier than this one. After reading that these were edible, I went back and gave them a try. They’re cute, but I’ll not be using them on cereal or with shortcake!

  14. It’s amazing how big commercial strawberries are getting now. But they’re still not as tasty as some of the local Oregon variants. I would never had thought of your pictured berry as a strawberry.

    1. Especially around Valentine’s and Mother’s Day, the stores here sell chocolate dipped strawberries, and they are huge. Sometimes they’re tasty, and sometimes they’re just big. If I want chocolate-dipped ones, I’d rather buy the berries and dip them myself. Chocolate can disguise an unripe berry pretty well.

      It’s like blueberries. The first time I encountered wild Maine blueberries, I was astonished by their small size — but they surely were good.

  15. Lots of strawberries around here, Linda. Even Peggy grows them although we have to beat the birds and squirrels to them. My brother picked strawberries one summer when he was in high school and was taking a timeout with our grandparents down near Watsonville. It was not easy work. He was still whining about it 50 years later! –Curt

    1. A lot of us had the pleasure of field work as kids: strawberry picking, cotton chopping, corn detasseling. Corn and cotton are dealt with differently now, but strawberries still are hand-picked, and the fields have to be harvested multiple times as the berries ripen. Do you remember how much your brother was paid? Detasseling in 1960s Iowa was big money: fifty cents an hour!

      1. Not sure what Marshall got paid, Linda, but I received $.90 per hour for picking pears. I quickly discovered I could earn more picking by the box, up to $2.00 an hour in good fruit. But boy was it hard work!

          1. Harry and David were a bit smarter than my grandfather and great grandfather. Like the brothers, my mother’s family owned a large pear orchard in Medford. My Great Grandfather had arrived in town in 1907 and bought out one of the pioneer pear farmers. Things went great up until the Depression when Harry and David figured out how to avoid economic ruin by marketing nationally in a clever way. My Grandfather didn’t. –Curt

    1. I wasn’t introduced to Silverstein’s work until I was an adult, but he’s one of those whose appeal is so broad, I suspect i enjoy him as much as your kids did. As for the Indian strawberry, I didn’t have a clue what it was when I first came upon it, but its resemblance to a true strawberry made it easy to identify.

    1. I was so intrigued by the globe-like shape of the berries, and the way the seeds are so much more prominent than on our usual strawberries. Of course, it would take about a half-dozen of these to make up one strawberry, so even if they tasted as good as the ones we add to our shortcakes, it would be quite a chore to pick even a cupful.

      I rather liked the way the cold had singed the leaves around the flowers, too. They are hardy little plants, and apparently can take quite a bit of cold.

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