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Plants from the Ground Up

Arbutus – The Delightful Strawberry Tree

I am often asked to suggest a plant that looks good year-round. For gardeners in USDA zone 7 and warmer, my first thought is the Strawberry Tree. Arbutus unedo is among the most attractive tree/shrubs for temperate gardens. Arbutus features evergreen, leathery foliage which is deep-green and contrasts impeccably with its cinnamon-colored flaky bark. I would consider it ornamental enough if it had stopped there! Delicate pale-pink to white bell-shaped blossoms add to its beauty from fall into winter. The blooms develop into showy, rough-textured, orangey-red fruits. The fruit begins to ripen just as the next set of flowers appear. The berries and flowers hanging together on this tree is one of my favorite autumn sights.

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ COMPACT STRAWBERRY BUSH

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’
COMPACT STRAWBERRY BUSH

While no one questions the beauty of these rough-textured fruits, its edibility creates more controversy. Pliny the Elder is attributed with providing the botanical name of unedo after claiming “unum tantum edo”, meaning ‘I eat only one’ after sampling the fruit. The berries are mildly sweet when ripe and have a somewhat gritty mouth feel. In my opinion, they are not especially delicious. My brother in law, however, eats them by the handful. For him they are a happy memory of Sardinia. When used for beekeeping, the flowers give a distinct and unusual bitter flavor to the honey. Sardinia is the largest producer of this special Arbutus honey. In Portugal, Arbutus is known as Madroño and it is used with brandy to make a tasty spirit called Aguaredente de Medronhos. Arbutus undeo is widely used for the manufacture of jams and preserves. It also has a long history of medicinal use. Since the bark and leaves are astringent, it has been used as a treatment for a wide array of maladies from dysentery to treating sore throats.

Arbutus unedo

Arbutus unedo is native to the Mediterranean region, from Southern Europe to North Africa and the Middle East. It has also naturalized in Ireland, lending it another common name of the ‘Killarney’ Strawberry tree. Being a Mediterranean native it is very well adapted to summer dry areas, yet it has adapted well to the cool wet summers of the UK and parts of Asia. It also thrives in coastal areas making an excellent addition to maritime gardens. Its pollution tolerance makes it an outstanding urban landscape plant.

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ COMPACT STRAWBERRY BUSH

Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’
COMPACT STRAWBERRY BUSH

Arbutus unedo make very attractive tree/shrubs reaching 12-20 feet which can be either single or multi-trunked specimens. ‘Compacta’ is a smaller version reaching only 6-8 feet, making it perfect for smaller gardens or large containers. These trees are self-fertile so only one is required for fruiting. Arbutus is a very easy care plant for specimen or informal hedge and is a natural for Mediterranean landscapes. Pruning is generally unnecessary unless a tree form is desired. They tend to take on a very artistic branching pattern when left to grow on their own. The Strawberry Tree requires good-draining soil with occasional deep watering. Fertilize in early spring for best performance. Arbutus are hardy to USDA zone 7 and are generally grown from seed.

Arbutus ‘Marina’

Arbutus unedo has crossed with Arbutus andrachne (a smaller madrone-like species) and created a wonderful natural hybrid. This hybrid was named ‘Marina’ for the San Francisco neighborhood it was planted in. It was grown from cuttings of a specimen from the Strybing Arboretum. ‘Marina’ has wonderful pink blooms which are produced year round and features the signature exfoliating bark all Arbutus are known for. This hybrid has the best of both species. While it is larger than A. unedo it is much smaller than A. menzesii, creating a wonderful compromise at 25 feet in height. It performs well where a true Madrone tree would not. The smaller fruits are edible, but even less flavorful than unedo. This gorgeous specimen shows slightly less winter hardiness, to USDA zone 8.

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE - Flower

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE – Flower

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE - Foliage

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE – Foliage

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE - Bark

Arbutus ‘Marina’ STRAWBERRY TREE – Bark

For more photos and information, see Arbutus at the Forestfarm Store.

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