What Is A Strawberry Tree?

Not at all related to your garden strawberries, this ornamental tree will feed both humans and birds, alike.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Chris A/Flickr

A unique small tree, prized for both its lovely flowers and edible fruits, the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a native of Europe. Although this broad-leaved evergreen is hardy only in USDA zones 7 through 10, its many positive attributes make it well worth growing throughout most of the southern U.S., as well as in coastal areas up and down the West Coast.

Meet The Strawberry Tree

Reaching a mature height of 10 to 25 feet, the strawberry tree has dark-green, glossy, 3-inch-long leaves and produces delicate panicles of small, bell-shaped, white flowers that resemble those of a blueberry plant and smell a little like honey.

The tree comes into flower in the autumn, and upon pollination, is quickly followed by small, round fruits. The bumpy-skinned fruit takes up to a year to mature and ripens from a pale yellow to a bright red. The mature fruits are often still clinging to the branches when the following year’s blossoms begin to open, covering the tree with a gorgeous combination of fruits and flowers every autumn. Plants are self-fertile, so only one specimen is required for good fruit set. The nectar of the strawberry tree is a favorite of pollinating bees.

As the tree ages, the branches twist and gnarl, and the bark begins to fissure, lending additional interest to this beautiful, edible landscape plant.

What Do Strawberry Tree Fruits Taste Like?

While the ripe fruits aren’t particularly sweet, their fig-like flavor and licorice-like scent is said to make delicious preserves and pies. Their flavor is nothing like that of a real strawberry, and the fruit must be picked only when very ripe to avoid a grainy texture and slightly astringent flavor. In Ireland, the strawberry tree is called the cane apple or the Killarney strawberry tree, and in Portugal, a brandy liqueur is made from the ripe fruits. It’s also prized for its medicinal qualities in some cultures.

Where To Plant A Strawberry Tree

A beautifully ornamental tree, the strawberry tree is often used as a small landscape tree or hedge specimen in areas of North America where it is hardy. To maintain the plant as a multi-stemmed shrub, a simple yearly pruning is all that’s required.

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Because the strawberry tree is a native of the Mediterranean region, it’s quite tolerant of dry climates and is a popular ornamental plant in California and many southern states. It prefers full sun to partial shade and is a fairly slow grower. Well-drained, lean, acidic soils are best. Strawberry trees are salt-tolerant, making them a good choice for coastal areas and salt-plagued soils.

As a member of the heath family, there are many named cultivars of the strawberry tree, including the short-statured selections Elfin King and Compacta, the pale pink-flowered variety Rubra, and the compact, dark pink-flowered Oktoberfest. Most cultivars tend to be larger fruited than the straight species.

Downsides To The Strawberry Tree

If the fruits aren’t harvested for use in the kitchen, they become an important food source for wildlife. Birds greatly enjoy the fruits, especially during the winter months. But if the birds neglect to glean the fruit off the tree and it drops to the ground, it will make quite a mess, especially if the tree hangs over cars, buildings or sidewalks.

Although this plant is easy to grow and fairly trouble-free, potential pest issues include aphids and whiteflies. If a coating of sticky honeydew is noticed underneath the tree’s canopy, check the branches carefully for these tiny, sap-sucking insects. Both can be controlled with applications of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap, used according to label instructions.

Strawberry trees are a terrific choice for gardeners who reside in milder climates. Their striking flowers, fruits, and form make strawberry trees a great plant with four seasons of interest.

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