The charming little strawberry tree, with glossy evergreen leaves, rough red-brown bark, urn-shaped white to pink flowers, and round, bumpy, pink-red fruits, would be right at home in a fairy tale. Luckily, you’ll also find it in California and other warm regions of the United States. A modest size, four-season beauty, and a tolerance for drought and salt drive the interest in this native of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Because the fruits take a year to ripen, they’re often still on the tree when next year’s flowers open—unless birds have flown off with them.
Common name: Strawberry tree, Irish strawberry tree
Botanical name: Arbutus unedo
Plant type: Evergreen small tree or large shrub
Zones: 7 to 9
Height: 15 to 30 feet tall and wide
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Rich, humusy, well-drained
• Moisture: Average
• Mulch: Mulch to help keep soil moist.
• Pruning: Can be pruned to a small tree with one or many trunks; if unpruned, it tends to grow as a large shrub.
• Fertilizer: None needed
• By seed or cuttings
Pests and diseases
• Scale insects and tent caterpillars may attack the tree.
• Vulnerable to leaf spots.
• A. unedo blooms and fruits in the off-season—from late summer into winter—when many other plants are dormant.
• Strawberry tree will thank you for placing it in a spot that’s sheltered from strong winter winds. It’s happiest in a climate with hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters.
• Use strawberry tree in a woodland setting, as a privacy screen, or as a specimen tree.
• Though the fruits are edible, they’re said to be bland and mealy, and thus best left for the birds or made into liqueur or jam.
• A. unedo ‘Compacta’ is smaller than the species—about 5 feet tall.
• A. unedo ‘Elfin King’ is 5 to 6 feet tall and wide and is often used for containers.
• A. unedo ‘Rubra’ has dark pink flowers.
All in the family
• There are about 14 species in the Arbutus genus. Most are from Europe and the Mediterranean; some are native to North and Central America.
• One species found in western North America, Arbutus menziesii, is called madroño or manzanita. But the name manzanita also refers to about 50 species of shrubs in the genus Arctostaphylos. These are also found in the western U.S. and Mexico.
• Other members of the heath family include blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo by Tracy Walsh.)