By Larry Hodgson
Question: In the lawn of our backyard, there is a small plant which resembles a tiny strawberry plant. It produces small yellow flowers which eventually by the end of summer become tiny red “fruits”. They’re about the size of the end of my little finger but have absolutely no taste. Could this plant be a sort of precursor to modern strawberry plants?
Answer: That would be mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica, now more correctly Potentilla indica), also called false strawberry, Indian strawberry or backyard strawberry.
It’s indeed a very close relative of the strawberry, but not a precursor. It’s a small groundcover plant with trifoliate leaves and creeping stolons, just like a true strawberry (Fragaria spp.). Of course, the yellow flowers are a sure giveaway, as true strawberries only have white, pink or red blooms. The small red fruits are edible, but insipid. Even so, they are harvested and eaten in parts of Asia where it’s native from Afghanistan to the Russian Far East and Malesia. It has also been used as a medicinal plant in its native range.
Mock strawberry was a popular groundcover plant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but hasn’t been offered very often since then. Your plants probably originated from garden escapees from that period. The plant is remarkably persistent!
It was also offered as a houseplant at one time, as it is evergreen and remains attractive indoors all winter as long as its light and watering needs are met. Also, it once had a certain popularity as a hanging basket plant. Again, though, it hasn’t been trendy in a long, long time.
Most often these days it is seen as a garden escapee, as in your case, having become a minor lawn weed … well, if you consider a pretty little flowering, fruiting plant in the lawn to be a weed. It has become established in temperate and subtropical regions of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Australia.
You might want to try moving a mock strawberry from your lawn and growing it on its own. It’s well suited to sun or partial shade and adapts to most soils, either acid or alkaline, in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. The flowers bloom mostly in spring and early summer, although there is sporadic bloom until fall. Berries are ripe and bright red from late summer into fall. They’re very popular with birds.
Mock strawberry can also be grown from seed, occasionally offered by mail order. There is also a variegated cultivar with green and white leaves: ‘Harlequin’.
I once had mock strawberry in a lawn and just let it be. It was harmless enough and gave my lawn a bit of color. Plus, it attracted all sorts of pollinators, including native bees. It’s low enough that you can mow right over it, so required no special attention on my part. But then, I’ve always preferred a mixed lawn to the endless carpet of boring grass that is so popular these days!