Growing the Strawberry Tree—Arbutus unedo

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree), fruit & flower, october
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Many people think that drought tolerant shrubs must be plain and boring, but that certainly does not have to be the case. The strawberry tree is a good example. This shrub (or small tree) bears delicate flowers and brightly colored fruits that reach maturity in the fall.

On the coat of arms for the city of Madrid in Spain, a bear is reaching up to grab fruit from a strawberry tree.

  • Latin Name: The given name for this tree is Arbutus unedo. Unedo comes from the Latin phrase unum edo, which translates to "I eat one". This may be in reference to the fact that the fruits are often not very tasty if eaten out of hand, so a person would only have to partake of one before finding that out. It belongs to the Ericaceae family. Other family members include madrone (Arbutus menziesii), common heather (Calluna vulgaris), rhododendrons and azaleas, bearberries (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Vaccinium shrubs and subshrubs (Vaccinium spp.) like blueberries.
  • Common Names: In some horticulture classes, they used the name strawberry tree for this plant. It can also be called Killarney strawberry tree, Irish strawberry tree, cane apples, Dalmation strawberry or simply arbutus.
  • Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones: Grow this shrub in USDA Zones 7-10. It originally comes from western Europe and the Mediterranean region.
  • Size & Shape of the Strawberry Tree: Many cultivars in the United States reach a mature size of 8-12' tall and wide, though the species can become a tree as tall as 35' in the right conditions. It forms into a round shape.
  • Exposure: Your planting location should receive either full sun or partial shade during the day.

Foliage/Flowers/Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

The shiny dark leaves are 2-4" long and oblong.

The urn-shaped flowers are found in clusters and are either white or pink. They appear in fall and winter.

The fruits are up to 1" round. They start out yellow and gradually change to red by autumn. There are often both flowers and fruit at the same time.

The fruits are edible, though they are not usually enjoyable when fresh. They can be made into jams, and jellies and are also used to make a Portuguese spirit called medronho.

Design Tips For the Strawberry Tree

As long as you have made sure that it has regular watering for the first year so that the tree can form a strong root, it will be drought resistant. It can also grow in salty areas.

If you don't want to deal with picking up lots of fallen fruit all the time, choose the 'Elfin King' cultivar. The trade-off, of course, is that it produces less of the showy fruits.

For pink flowers, look for the 'Rubra' cultivar.

Growing Tips For the Strawberry Tree

Like other ericaceous plants, this tree does best in acidic soil. It can also tolerate a neutral pH. You can make your soil more acidic to some degree as needed.


Pruning is not usually necessary for this tree unless branches are growing the wrong way or there are problems like dead, diseased or dying branches. If you do have pruning to perform, do so at the end of winter.

You can train this into a standard so it has more of a tree form. It does not work well as a hedge.

Propagation is through seed germination and cuttings.

Pests & Diseases of the Strawberry Tree:

Diseases that can appear:

  • Annosus root disease (Heterobasidion annosum or Fomes annosus)
  • Anthracnose
  • Arbutus leaf spots (Septoria unedonis or Elsinoë mattirolianum)
  • Leaf galls (Exobasidium vaccinii)
  • Phytophthora
  • Sudden oak death ( Phytophthora ramorum)
  • Twig dieback

Pests that may strike:

  • Aphids (Aphidoidea Superfamily)
  • Flatheaded borers
  • Leafminers
  • Scales
  • Thrips
  • Western tent caterpillar (Malacosoma californicum)