The Strawberry Tree– Arbutus unedo, a plant for all seasons

When choosing a plant for the garden I try to find one with as many points of interest as possible. Autumn colours, leaf shape, evergreen, scented flowers, size, edible fruits and so on. Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree, is no exception – it has them all. It is also something of a botanical exception being one of the few Ericaceous plants able to grow in alkaline soils.

A. unedo grows throughout the Mediterranean Basin from Portugal to Turkey and Lebanon to Morocco. Surprisingly it is also found on the west coast of Ireland being a left-over from an earlier warmer climate. It is thought to have been introduced to Britain as early as 1586 but by the beginning of the 18th century it was common enough to be recommended for hedging. It is not regarded as a good source of food for bees as the honey can be bitter so it is not recommended to plant it near to bee hives.

In the garden it is slow growing but interesting enough to be grown as a specimen tree especially if the branches are highlighted. A mature Arbutus makes an excellent windbreak and background tree for any Mediterranean garden. The leaves are evergreen, 5 to 8cm long, glossy dark green with finely serrated edges. The size of the tree depends on who you talk to but in some gardens it can grow to be 4m tall and 5m wide. It can be used as a specimen plant on patios or terraces.

Small “heather-bell” white aromatic flowers appear in the autumn and are followed by an abundance of strawberry-like fruits which change colour from green to yellow to orange and bright red as they mature providing year round interest. Flowers and fruit often occur at the same time. The edible fruits are warty, rough skinned, about 2cm in size and very decorative. As they mature the sugars ferment to produce alcohol which attracts more wildlife especially birds while the flowers are a magnet for honey bees. It is the specific host for the Two-tailed Pasha or Jason butterfly.

The taste of the “strawberry” has been variously described as vaguely anise, very sweet (when mature), apricot/guava, tasteless, insipid, bland and watery and mealy and pippy. However they are rich in vitamin C, pectin, malic acid and sugar. They have found a place in local cooking especially in jams and jellies but famously for making medronho.

An array of local hooches is made from the fruits around the Mediterranean but, the most famous is the Portuguese medronho described as a clear fiery eau-de-vie. It is also available flavoured with honey described as “less fiery”! The Greeks, Albanians, Italians, Corsicans, Sardinians, French and Spanish all make their own versions, however I found no reference to an Irish malt!

There are several varieties including A. unedo ‘Rubra’ with pinkish flowers, ‘Compacta’ which is claimed to be a heavy bearer of flowers and fruits and ‘Atlantic’ with early flowers. There are perhaps a dozen distinct species of Arbutus most of which could be grown in our gardens. A. andrachne and the hybrid A.x andrachnoides which is grown for its red-brown peeling bark are both native in and common to Greece.

The arbutus associates really well with the other native evergreen shrubs and older mature specimens are highly prized and jealously guarded for their harvest of fruits to make medronho. If you are also looking for a plant with as many points of interest as possible it is well worth seeking out Arbutus to add to your garden.

By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal