Strawberries anyone?

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.

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6 Comments on “Strawberries anyone?”

  1. tonytomeo
    October 18, 2021 at 7:37 am #

    No one knows why, but the strawberry tree is popular among those of Italian descent. It is one of several stereotypical ‘Italian American’ plants, like Italian cypress, olives, grapes, figs, nasturtiums, oleanders and various citrus. One lived in the garden of my ancestors. No, I do not grow it. However, common and native madrone grows wild here.

    • thebikinggardener
      October 18, 2021 at 8:56 am #

      I think Arbutus unedo is native to Italy and suspect it is used to make a syrup or liqueur. That may be why they are planted by Italian Americans – but I am only guessing.

      • tonytomeo
        October 18, 2021 at 6:18 pm #

        Yes, it is also native to Italy; but I know of no one who uses the fruit. Perhaps they did a long time ago.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    October 18, 2021 at 10:36 am #

    A beautiful plant and I persevered with it when we came here but never succeeded in getting it to settle and thrive so I don’t have it now at all. I think the tree Tony refers to above it the Madrona, beloved of those who live in S. America, Arbutus menziesii and has the most fabulous colour on the bark – there is a nice specimen in Mount Usher.

    • thebikinggardener
      October 18, 2021 at 10:39 am #

      That is so odd that arbutus would not grow for you when it survives here. It can’t be the cold – very peculiar. Yes that is the Madrona I suspect. I may try others now that the first has given me some encouragement.

      • Paddy Tobin
        October 18, 2021 at 10:41 am #

        Yes, it bothered me as I couldn’t understand the failures – and there were several.

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