To most people in Ireland strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) are nothing very exciting; after all they are a native tree. But for an immigrant like me they are amazing. Related to heathers and rhododendrons (Ericaceae), they have typical, heather-like flowers, usually ivory white, blushed with pink, and delicately waxy. I planted mine four years ago when the garden was embryonic and the soil was barely dug – though I did my best for it. Because I knew it was a risky move I didn’t search out the rarest cultivar but bought a small, 45cm plant of the plain old species. Much to my amazement, it has flourished.
It is true that the foliage gets a good battering in winter and, as yet, I have not had a crop of the strange, and tasteless, fruits that give it its common name. I think this is because the flowers are usually damaged by autumn frost. For this is a plant that produces its tiny flower buds a year in advance and opens them, at the ends of the shoots, in October and November. It deserves planting if only for this fact (of course there are other species from southern Europe and the West of North America). It is also valuable for being one of the few, small, hardy (with some qualifications) evergreen trees. The leaves are dark and glossy and the bark is cinnamon brown and fibrous, though not the best in the genus.
The name arbutus is derived from an old Roman name for the plant and unedo means you eat one, because the berries are so bland.
The plant is now about 1.5m high and very bushy. The flowers should be pollinated by bees but these do not seem very bothered at the moment. All the honeybees are obsessed by the persicarias, which are buzzing with them. I hope that a few bees have a feed on the arbutus because I would like to see a few berries next year – which take a year to ripen and are red while the flowers are opening.
Incidentally, the strawberries on a strawberry tree are not real strawberries and don’t taste like strawberries but they are berries, while, of course, strawberries are not berries at all!
Often called the Killarney strawberry tree, it is native to Kerry, Cork and Sligo, which are the disjunct northern home for a species that is otherwise Mediterranean. There are several plants that are found in Ireland and Portugal and the distribution is called Lusitanian. It is not entirely understood how this group of plants has come to have such a strange distribution – perhaps St Patrick brought them. They also include the Daboecia cantabrica, Erica erigena and Pinguicula grandiflora.