Arbutus Unedo is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean regions of Portugal and France, though it now has a presence in Ireland; ever since 1835, the red-flowered variant was discovered growing wild there!
Strawberry Trees were described by Carl Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum of 1753 which has been the bible of classification ever since. Growing 5-10 metres in height with a trunk diameter of up to 80 cm, the leaves of the Strawberry Tree are dark green and glossy with a serrated margin and their bell-shaped flowers are hermaphrodite.
Delightfully coloured white or pale pink, the flower of this species is pollinated by bees and the fruit of the Strawberry Tree isn’t a strawberry at all but it is still a red berry with a rough surface!
Still edible (just), this fruit unfortunately isn’t particularly tasty like its delicious namesake suggests; however, the fruit of the Strawberry Tree does serve as food for birds. Some countries do make jam or liqueurs from it too; Portuguese “medronho” is a kind of strong brandy and is apparently quite tasty!
According to the cultivation experts, this species is one that grows well in limy soils and best planted in a sheltered position because it flowers so late in the year. Arbutus Unedo has naturally adapted to dry summers though they also grow well in the cool, wet summers of western Ireland and have become very popular in American gardens especially with the Californian climate.
Strawberry Trees (and this is quite obvious when seen) have also been cultivated for their attractive peeling bark. Colourful and elegant the tree has clearly been sun-kissed by its native Mediterranean habitat though they should not be planted where bees are kept; the bitterness imparts to honey.
Strawberry Trees are best planted young in Spring which will allow the plant several months to acclimatise before winter sets in. For the first few winters, you must cosset the young plant by covering it with a fleece liner in extremely cold weather to protect it.
As it matures, it will become more tolerant and regular pruning will prevent the fruit setting as they are formed from the previous year’s flowers.
English gardens were lucky enough in the sixteenth-century to have the Strawberry Tree imported and this species now makes up part of the coat of arms of the City of Madrid too with a bear munching this fruit.
Strawberry Trees are a timeless piece of horticulture; to have been mentioned by the Roman poet Ovid, in the first book of Metamorphoses means they will surely live forever!