Thursday, 27 January 2011

Strawberry Tree...

Imagine stumbling across a tree laden with frosted strawberries in sub-zero conditions in the middle of winter! No, I wasn’t dreaming, and nor was I wending my way back from a party or the pub. I spotted them the other day on a city street and it was a truly startling sight.

The tree that caught my eye was a ‘Strawberry Tree’ whose ripening clusters of ball like fruits are indeed the same size and colour as a strawberries and have the slightly roughened skin to match. There the resemblance ends however, as they look much better than they taste. Although edible enough, the mealy insipid flesh has none of the sweet tanginess that we would associate with a fruit. Interestingly, the plant’s latin name hints at this. It is Arbutus unedo, and the ‘unedo’ part apparently means ‘I eat one’, suggesting that no-one with fully functioning taste buds would ever bother with a second...

We might turn our noses up at them, but that does not mean they are not a treat for the birds, ripening through autumn and winter at a time when other food can be scarce. They have had to wait a long time for them to reach that stage though as the flowers are produced a full year or more before, opening as large trusses of pinky white bells in October and November. Strange timing indeed for insect pollinated blossoms to be out, though the show of flower and fruit at the same time can be really eye-catching.
It makes a very attractive small tree or sometimes a large multi-stemmed shrub up to about twenty feet high and as much across. It has fully evergreen shiny dark green leaves which contrast pleasingly with the reddish twigs. The older branches have beautifully flaky cinnamon colored bark and the craggy trunk’s darker surface peels off in strips revealing the lovely lighter wood beneath.
These tough tree’s got pushed back by the last ice age to tip of Southern Ireland, France and ‘the Med’ where they can still be found growing wild. Where planted in gardens they thrive in some of the most difficult dry, hot conditions as well as wet and windy coastal sites. Smoky cites too, they take in their stride.
Despite coming from a famous family of acid soil addicts, it is unusually happy on Limestone, so I’l be adding it to my garden wish list. The ‘Strawberry Tree’, one of the tastiest looking plants I have seen in a long time...

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