The strawberry tree, with fruit that looks uncannily like field strawberries, falls somewhere between a large shrub and small tree on the horticultural scale. For warm-climate gardeners, strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) make ideal broad-leaved evergreens with ornamental fruit and flowers. Although few people prize the fruit’s raw taste, its tasty jams and liqueurs make the strawberry tree a useful plant to include in edible landscaping.
A broad-leafed evergreen tree, Arbutus unedo generally stays under 12 feet, although some varieties top 40. Upon maturity, the tree has a rounded growing habit, interestingly gnarled trunk and branches and deeply-ridged bark. Its toothed, oval leaves are glossy on top, and measure 2 to 4 inches long. The Sonoma County California Master Gardeners program likens strawberry tree leaves to that of citrus fruits. The strawberry tree blooms in autumn and through the winter with small, pale pink or white bell-shaped flowers reminiscent of the blueberry bush. The fruits themselves measure about 3/4 inch in diameter and look uncannily like strawberries, save for their round shape. The berries take a year to ripen.
Strawberry trees grow best in moderate climates, especially zones 7 to 11. Establish them where they will receive full sun or dappled shade. The tree does well in several soil types, and tolerates drought. Give it protection from strong winds.
Strawberry trees make useful screening hedges or landscape features. They bloom in the autumn when most other trees enter dormancy. It is one of the few trees which bear fruit and flowers at the same time. The previous year’s fruit turns red just as the current year’s flowers bloom. The online database Plants For A Future notes that the tree makes an ideal one for downtown landscaping because of its tolerance for “industrial pollution.”
The fruits of the strawberry tree are edible, but unlike actual strawberries, the Arbutus unedo fruits make for better preserves than fresh eating. In fact, the word “unedo” gives us a clue to the fruit’s uncooked taste; it translates to “I eat one only.” On the other hand, some of the Plants For A Future staffers consider the uncooked fruit an acquired taste well worth cultivating. A traditional liqueur known as Madrono is made from strawberry tree fruit.
Flowering branches make lovely centerpieces for fall and winter tables, according to the Sonoma County program, because their ornamental branches bear fragrant fruit and flowers at the same time.
Elfin king and compacta work well in small spaces. Rubra bears ornanmental pink flowers. The hybrid marina grows much larger than the common strawberry tree, about 40 feet tall and wide, but is a slow grower.