A tree for all occasions

The strawberry tree on a berm near the junction of Tainui Rd and Lochend St in Dunedin makes a...
The strawberry tree on a berm near the junction of Tainui Rd and Lochend St in Dunedin makes a handsome street tree. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Mark Clark
Mark Clark
The Holy Grail of a perfect tree for southern gardens is one that doesn't need pruning and doesn't grow too tall, with beautiful flowers, edible fruit, interesting leaves, and colourful bark. Oh, and it should be pest-resistant and disease-resistant, as well as being able to cope with frosts, wind and dry spells. Not too much to ask for, surely.

Well, rhododendrons and camellias tick a lot of those boxes, and they're evergreen to boot, which is why we see so many in local gardens. They're not much chop when it comes to fruit, though.

On the other hand, apple trees and plum trees score winsomely for fruit and even for flowers, but their leaves and bark are more functional than fantastic.

Like us, different trees are good at some things and not so good at others. The tallest conifers and gum trees in the world have surprisingly small cones, flowers or capsules, with tiny seeds inside.

Which all brings us to the subject of this month's article - the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), originally from the coasts of the Mediterranean and western Ireland. It's a distant cousin of rhododendrons in the same Ericaceae (heather) family of plants. Other names for it are arbousier (French), madrono (Spanish), arvore de morango (Portuguese), corbezzolo (Italian), fraoula dentro (Greek), shajarat alfarawila (Arabic North Africa), Irish strawberry tree, Killarney strawberry tree, cain apple, cane apple, and crann sutha talun (Irish). Some authorities link "Arbutus" to the Celtic "arboise", which means rough-fruited, but I reckon the Latin 'arbor' for tree is a likely influence.

The fruits are regarded by some as having a pleasant flavour, according to the Oxford Book of...
The fruits are regarded by some as having a pleasant flavour, according to the Oxford Book of Trees. Photo: Getty Images
While you wouldn't call any part of a strawberry tree spectacular, it's a plucky all-rounder that ticks almost all of the boxes better than any other small tree I can think of - even if they're little ticks.

Strawberry trees are common enough in Otago and Southland without becoming a cliche. In Dunedin, anyone who walks across the Jetty St overbridge to or from Birch St will have seen the lovely, large spreading strawberry tree where the walkway spirals near the harbour. They seldom grow above house height, and they usually keep a tidy, rounded shape without needing to be pruned.

The rich dark green of the toothy leaves is the very essence of a Mediterranean landscape, in perfect sync with neighbouring cork oaks, holm oaks, umbrella stone pines and all those regiments of tall, thin cypresses. The tough evergreen leaves shrug off southern frosts and snow and deftly cope with coastal winds and dry spells.

In autumn, pretty white bells flushed with pink make the family connection with heather clear. The little waxy upturned urns are more delightful than glamorous, but they're worth a closer look from passers-by.

As luck would have it, the red warty berries ripen around the same time as the flowers open. This is when the trees are at their colourful best. The received wisdom is that the species name "unedo" comes from Pliny the Elder, who apparently wrote "unum tantum edo" ("I eat only one"), implying that the fruit wasn't good enough for a second helping. Having eaten some of the berries myself, I like the classic English understatement in my old Oxford Book of Trees, which drily observes: "The fruits are regarded by some as having a pleasant flavour". You probably wouldn't want to gorge yourself on the fruit, but it's agreeable enough. Mediterranean people use it for jams and jellies and in folk medicine. I've seen cans of it for sale in Asian food shops.

This lovely spreading strawberry tree in Birch St, Dunedin, is close to the southern end of the...
This lovely spreading strawberry tree in Birch St, Dunedin, is close to the southern end of the Jetty St overbridge with its spiral walkway. On a warm day, it gives the small green space behind it an amiable Mediterranean ambience. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The sinuous postures held by the twisting trunks and large branches of strawberry trees are appealing wooden sculptures in their own right. Although the fibrous bark is mostly an unremarkable grey, patches occasionally flake off to reveal lovely warm brown and orange tones.

The Iberian Peninsula in western Europe is strawberry tree central. Who among us wouldn't jump at the chance to spend a few weeks in Spain or Portugal as our southern winter slowly morphs into spring? If you've got a strawberry tree in your garden, you already have a living link to that part of the world. In the centre of Madrid, there's a statue of a bear eating fruit from a strawberry tree (madrono) - an image repeated on the Spanish capital's official coat of arms.

 

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