Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Tree)

Arbutus unedo, commonly called the Strawberry tree, is a big woody evergreen shrub or small tree. It is multi-stemmed with red-brown flaky bark and dark green leathery leaves. The flowers grow in drooping clusters of tiny white bells. The fruits are bright red with a rough pebbled surface.

It is adaptable to many climates and can tolerate adverse climatic conditions with extreme temperatures and prolonged droughts. It can be found all over the world but is native to the Mediterranean basin and, surprisingly, also to Ireland.



Quick Overview

TYPE

Type tree

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) height and width

BLOOM TIME

Abutus unedo (strawberry tree) bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun / semi shade

HARDINESS

hardiness (-12ºC / 10º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Strawberry tree scientific name

  • Botanical name: Arbutus unedo (ar-BU-tus U-nay-do)
  • Family: Ericaceae (er-ek-AY-see-eee)
  • Common name: Strawberry tree
NameMeaning
Arbutus It is the Latin word for Strawberry.
unedoDerives from the Latin phrase “Unum Tantum Edo”, meaning “I eat only one“, referring to the not very pleasant taste of its fruit.

How to identify Arbutus unedo

arbutus unedo shrub habit/form (strawberry tree)

Shrub

Large multibranched shrub or tree that can take the form of a small tree with twisted trunks and an irregularly rounded crown.

It is slow-growing but can reach up to 5 meters (16 feet) or more, spreading 2 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) to the sides.

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arbutus unedo stem (strawberry tree)

Stem

The stem has alternate leaves and side stems that may have clusters of fruits. On the tip of some new shoots, we can see drooping panicles of tiny flowers.

The new shoots are red-tinged. Older shoots are brownish-red and gradually develop a flaky bark as they age.

arbutus unedo leaf front and back view (strawberry tree)

Leaf

Leaves are leathery with a serrated margin and a short red petiole.

The front is dark green and glossy, and the back is pale green and hairless.

The leaves have an oblong shape of 4-10cm (1.5-4 in) long and 2-3cm (0.7-1.1in) wide.

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arbutus unedo flower inside view (strawberry tree)

Flower

Flowers appear in drooping panicles of 10-30 flowers. Each flower is tiny and white and can be tinged green or pink. It has 5 petals that are joined nearly to their full length, forming an urn shape. Inside are 10 stamens and one pistil with a 5 locular ovary.

The flower size is around 7-8 mm (0.2-0.4 in).

The flowers bloom in autumn and winter.

 

arbutus unedo fruit inside view (strawberry tree)

Fruit

The fruit is a globose berry with a pebbled surface originating from the previous year’s flowers. It takes around 10 to 12 months to ripen, beginning with a green-yellow colour that changes to bright red when ripe. It has 5 small seeds inside.

The fruit size is around 1 – 2cm (0.4 – 0.8 in) in diameter.

The fruit appears in autumn and winter at the same time as the new flowers bloom.

The fruit looks like a wild strawberry, hence the name strawberry tree.

Quick tips to identify Arbutus unedo

How to identify Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) - Drought tolerant shrub

Arbutus unedo Usage

Arbutus unedo can be used for multiple purposes.

Ornamental

Arbutus unedo is commonly used as an ornamental tree in the garden. Its size, wind tolerance and dense foliage throughout the year make it an ideal plant for a garden structure, especially as a background plant.

It has a very attractive appearance with its twisted shape and beautiful reddish bark. Additionally, it grows pretty flowers and colourful berries, ranging from yellow to bright red, at a time of the year (autumn and winter) when most plants are not in flower.

The strawberry tree attracts bees, butterflies and birds, which adds interest to the garden.

Culinary

The fruit of Arbutus unedo is very rich in vitamin C (2-5 times of an orange), sugars (10-30%), and antioxidants.

The fruit can be eaten fresh, but it is not very tasty. It is mostly used in jams and alcoholic drinks. In Portugal, it is used to prepare a type of strong brandy called medronho.

Medicinal

Arbutus unedo has been used in folk medicine in Mediterranean countries throughout history. Almost all parts of the plant (leaves, fruits, bark and roots) have been used as infusions and decoctions to treat gastrointestinal, urological and dermatological problems. As well as for cardiac diseases and diabetes. 

Research has demonstrated the potential of Arbutus unedo for the treatment of some illnesses. This opens the possibility of using this plant for new drugs to treat certain illnesses.

Reforestation in dry regions

Arbutus unedo is a very robust plant that can survive extreme weather conditions, namely prolonged droughts. It also has low flammability and can regenerate after forest fires. These characteristics make it interesting for reforestation of dry Mediterranean areas that are frequently exposed to forest fires.

How to plant Arbutus unedo

The best time to plant a strawberry tree is in autumn, although you can plant it anytime until spring, as long as you can avoid frost.

It likes to be planted in a sunny place, so you should select an area in your garden that is exposed to sunlight. It does best in full sunlight but can also cope with semi-shade.  

Although it prefers acidic soils, it can also tolerate slightly alkaline soils. But whatever the PH, the soil must be well-drained.
So, in summary, sun and good drainage are what your strawberry tree needs.

How to water Arbutus unedo

Arbutus unedo is a drought-tolerant plant once established. So, it typically requires no water besides the winter rain once it is established. It does not do well in humid climates.

During the first year after planting, you will need to water the young strawberry tree every two to three weeks during the summer. Although the strawberry tree develops a taproot that can go deep into the ground to find water, the roots are not yet developed when it is very young, so it will need this extra water until it gets established.

When watering it, you need to do it abundantly, giving the soil a generous soak so the water can penetrate deeply into the soil to allow the roots to grow deeply. 

Additionally, you should add mulch around your strawberry tree (but not too close to the base) to help it control weeds and conserve moisture. Wood chips are good for mulching your strawberry tree.

How to prune Arbutus unedo

The strawberry tree does not require much pruning unless branches are growing the wrong way or dead and diseased branches. 

You may also want to prune the shrub into a more tree-like form, and in that case, some of the lower branches can be pruned to reveal the beautiful trunks.

Whatever the reason for pruning, it should be done in late winter or early spring to avoid the frosts and also to keep the pretty berries on the tree during the winter.

How to propagate Arbutus unedo

Strawberry trees can be propagated by seed, cuttings or layering.

Propagating from seeds

You can propagate strawberry trees by the seeds which can be found in the fruit; however, they have a very low germination rate. If you sow seeds still inside the fruit, the germination rate is less than 4.2%. If you remove the seeds from the fruit the germination rate is higher, up to 19.2%, if kept at an optimal temperature of 20ºC. For more information, see this research article.

To grow a Strawberry tree from seeds, you follow the same steps as for most shrubs. You can find detailed information about this process in the book: “Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants for Free

Propagating from cuttings

Propagation from cuttings has a higher success rate than seeds, but root development is slow.

Cuttings can be taken in summer or autumn. Take semi-hardwood cuttings from the current year’s growth. The cuttings should preferably have a heel.

Plant the cuttings in a tray or pot and place them in a misting system for summer cuttings or a bottom-heated system for autumn cuttings.

Propagating by layering

Layering propagation is the method with the most success rate. However, creating roots can take a long time (up to 2 years).

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Sources

Sources of information used for this article

https://www.rarefruitclub.org.au/Arbutus.htm

https://treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/arbutus/

https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/handle/10316/17964

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