Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Potentilla indica, also known as Indian Strawberry, False Strawberry, or Yellow-Flowered Strawberry. We should probably go ahead and clear the air and get the bad news out of the way before we continue. Indian Strawberry isn’t really a strawberry. Not technically, anyway. True strawberries belong to the genus Fragaria, and have white flowers, larger fruit, and a whole host of other differences. Indian strawberries share a similar growth pattern, the leaves bear a passing resemblance, and the fruit is red. That’s where the similarity ends.
Indian strawberry is named for East India, not the American Indians. It’s native to south and east Asia, and is widespread in China, India, Nepal, and Thailand. It was introduced to north America via the British Isles, where it jumped ship and gained a foothold around the time of the rise of the East India Trading Company in the early 1700s. If it finds a habitat it likes, it can become borderline invasive, spreading across large swaths of forest and field as a thick groundcover. Preferred habitat is partial sun with decent moisture and rich soil – it is found on field edges, in pastures and abandoned homestead sites, roadsides, lawns, and open woods. Indian strawberry is a herbaceous perennial. Like real strawberries, it spreads primarily via surface rhizomes (runners). It rarely grows more than a few inches high. This time of year, it hugs the ground pretty closely. It has trifoliate, basal leaves that sprout directly from the crown of roots. The leaves are usually less than an inch long, hairy, and possess rounded serrations on their margins. Right now, the best way to identify them is by their flowers. They are a bright, buttery yellow that really stands out against the plant’s dark green foliage. They are about ¾” across, and have five petals and five stamens. (Side note – the reason we’re doing this plant now instead of when it fruits in a month or so is because I can’t guarantee that the turkeys won’t eat all the fruit up. They’re wild about them and I couldn’t be certain of getting a photo of one.) The fruits (technically drupes) emerge in mid-April to mid-May, depending on your local conditions. They look a lot like strawberries, only tiny. They’re bright red and about half an inch across.
Unfortunately, they don’t taste like them. I learned this the hard way for the first time when I was on the Appalachian Trail somewhere in North Carolina and happened upon a huge patch of the things. I gathered several handfuls of them to add to my oatmeal, excited for fresh fruit… and ended up with a mouthful of disappointment. They’re not terrible, but they’re not great either. Most of the time (especially in rainy years) they’re almost completely flavorless. Sometimes they’re slightly bitter. And every now and then, if you’re really lucky, they taste vaguely like a strawberry. But they are edible. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters in a survival situation. As bland as they are, they’re far more appealing than starvation. They contain water, fiber, some vitamin C, simple carbohydrates, a bit of protein, and a few other trace nutrients. Thankfully, due to their growth pattern, if you can find one you can usually find a few handfuls of them, if the wildlife haven’t gotten to them first. The leaves are edible as well, and are arguably more nutritious than the fruit. They are best eaten in spring when they first come out, and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Although it might be a little underwhelming as an edible, Indian strawberry is a useful medicinal plant. It has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. The berries are great for soothing an upset stomach – take a ¼ cup of the fruit and blend it with 8oz of water and some mint leaves (optional but recommended), sweeten with honey, and serve over ice. It will go a long way towards calming heartburn and indigestion. The leaves are superb for treating skin issues when used as a poultice. They are useful as an anticoagulant, antiseptic, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. This poultice can be used to treat eczema, boils, rashes, poison ivy, and fungal infections such as ringworm and athlete’s foot. A tea made from the leaves is an effective febrifuge, and is also good for treating issues like laryngitis and tonsillitis.
So, it might not be a real strawberry, and the flavor of its fruit might not be what you’re expecting when you pick it, but that doesn’t mean that Indian strawberry is a useless plant – far from it. Rather than cast it aside, we should appreciate it for what it’s worth – as a valid survival food, and a useful medicinal plant for a variety of ailments. And we can never have too many of those. Do you have a personal experience with Indian Strawberry, positive or negative? Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments!
Are you a fan of #WildEdibleWednesday? Do you want to get some hands-on knowledge of local medicinal plants and how to use them? Then come to Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft - Plant Medicine on 4/29! Register now at sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft!