Riding home from work a little before sunset, and enjoying the recently-turned warm-on-a-regular-basis weather, I find myself passing through taro gardens, recently harvested and ready-to-be-harvested tea fields, and patches of roadside wood and devastation.
On the opposite side of the minor road I’m using I spot a single red, err, spot. Hoping that this is going to be worth my time, I slam on my brakes, spin around, and get ready to photograph.
I locate the red fruit. It turns out to be a raspberry. Oh, well.
I was hoping it was something else. Which I find about a week later, less than a kilometre away…
I know the Japanese name, just not the English name.
It has trefoil leaves like a strawberry. It produces flowers like a strawberry. It has red fruit growing on long stalks like a strawberry. It is even related to a strawberry. But it is not a strawberry.
The plant in question is known locally as hebiichigo (蛇苺), literally “snake strawberry”. There doesn’t appear to be an English common name for Potentilla hebiichigo, although the names mock strawberry, Gurbir, Indian strawberry or false strawberry are applied to the closely related and very similar Potentilla indica. The latter is known as yabuhebiichigo (藪蛇苺).
The two are very difficult to distinguish without flowers – the former develops five-petaled flowers, while the latter produces flowers with six petals.
Hebiichigo tends to produce slightly rounder leaves that are lighter in colour, and it prefers more open areas. So it is most likely that the plants on my commute are indica.
Live and learn.
Both of these plants have been the victims of nomenclature wars, and are sometimes found under the genus Duchesnea.
Another local folk name for the plant is dokuichigo (毒苺), literally “poison strawberry”, and there is a folk belief that the fruit of the plant is poisonous. In fact, the fruit is not harmful at all, it apparently – I haven’t tested this – is merely lacking in taste.
Yet another folk name is kuchinawaichigo, in which the “kuchinawa” is an old name for snake – apparently it refers to a rotting rope.
The common name is related to a folk belief that snakes ate the fruit, or that they would lie in wait under to plant to attack small animals that came to feed on the fruit.
This is a fairly attractive plant, and it is sometimes cultivated for its bright yellow flowers as well as the red fruit. It is also used in traditional folk medicine to treat fevers and haemorrhoids.
A workmate tells me that as a child she was given a treatment of false strawberries steeped in alcohol for eczema.
I have also found references to false strawberry liqueurs on the Internet.