How to Grow and Care for the Strawberry Tree

Strawberry tree shrub branches with yellow fruit hanging beneath

The Spruce / K. Dave

The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a shrub that bears delicate, fragrant flowers and brightly colored fruits that are not strawberries, but bland-tasting, round fruits. The oblong leaves are shiny and dark, 2 to 4 inches long. The tree produces bell-shaped white or pink flowers that grow in clusters and mature along with the fruit in the fall. Tying all of this together is the attractive multicolored bark and twisting branches that make this a lovely ornamental tree and when left as a shrub, can mature into a lush, dense dome shape. Plant new trees in the fall and expect a slow to moderate growth rate for this shrub.

Common Name Strawberry tree, Killarney strawberry tree, Irish strawberry tree, cane apples, Dalmatian strawberry, arbutus
Botanical Name  Arbutus unedo 
Family  Ericaceae
Plant Type  Shrub, evergreen
Size  8-12 ft. tall and wide, up to 35 ft. tall and wide
Sun Exposure  Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type  Sandy, clay, or loamy, well-draining
Soil pH  Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time  Fall
Hardiness Zones 4-9 (USDA)
Native Area  Western Europe and the Mediterranean region

How to Plant the Strawberry Tree

When to plant

The strawberry tree is not very finicky so you just have to choose a time to plant it when there's no threat of frost. Plant this tree in the early fall before the first frost or in the spring after the threat of frost has passed.

Selecting a planting site

Choose a sunny and well-drained area in loamy, sandy, or clay soil that is acidic to slightly alkaline. The tree can tolerate a site with some shade. Once the tree is established, it can tolerate drought and some wind, but it will not withstand severe conditions, especially when it is young. A strawberry tree can do well despite the presence of salt runoff or salt spray. This strawberry tree can also thrive when planted in urban areas and along streets and highways.

Spacing, depth, and support

If you plan to plant numerous trees or create a hedge with the strawberry tree, plant them 20 to 35 feet apart because the Arbutus unedo is considered to be small to medium in size depending on the cultivar you select. Younger trees may need a stake for support until they become more mature and hardy.

Strawberry Tree Plant Care

Many cultivars of strawberry trees in the United States reach a mature size of 8 to 12 feet tall and wide, though the species can become as tall as 35 feet in the right conditions. Its canopy forms a domed or rounded shape.

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.

Light

The strawberry tree appreciates more sun than shade. It will thrive if it has 6 hours of full, direct sun a day.

Soil

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 as needed.

Water

It is important to water regularly for the first year so that the tree can form strong roots. The strawberry tree is known to become more drought-resistant as it matures, and it can even grow in salty areas. Plan on 1 inch of water each week to equal the number of inches in the trunks diameter.

Temperature and Humidity

Strawberry trees are hardy in most temperatures and humidity levels. However, the tree will not thrive in excessively humid areas.

Fertilizer

Add about 3 inches of mulch around the base of the tree in the summer to protect it from scorching sunlight and in the winter to protect it from frost. This will also serve as an organic, slow-release fertilizer.

Strawberry tree shrub with hanging yellow and red fruit in sunlight

The Spruce / K. Dave

Strawberry tree shrub in field with small red fruit

The Spruce / K. Dave

Strawberry tree shrub branches

The Spruce / K. Dave

Strawberry tree shrub branch with small white cup-like flowers closeup

The Spruce / K. Dave

Types of Strawberry Trees

  • 'Elfin King': If you don't want to deal with picking up lots of fallen fruit, choose the dwarf 'Elfin King' cultivar. The trade-off, of course, is that it produces less of the showy fruits.
  • 'Rubra': This strawberry tree cultivar produces deep pink flowers.
  • 'Compacta': This dwarf strawberry tree is popular because it only grows about 8 to 12 feet high.
  • 'Oktoberfest': This is another dwarf strawberry tree that is an ideal container plant.

Arbutus Unedo vs. Muntingia Calabura

Both Arbutus unedo and Muntingia calabura are called by the common name of strawberry tree, but they are two different species. To avoid confusion, the Muntingia calabura is also called the Jamaican cherry, as well as the strawberry tree. It grows faster than the Arbutus unedo. The Jamaican cherry tree's berry tastes like cotton candy.

Harvesting From the Strawberry Tree

The berries on a strawberry tree are typically ready for harvesting in the late fall or winter around November or December. They are best picked when the skins of the berries are very red and they are a bit soft to the touch.

How to the Grow Strawberry Tree in Pots

'Elfin King', 'Oktoberfest', and 'Compacta' are all dwarf strawberry trees that are ideal for growing in pots on a patio in bright light and away from wind. Choose a well-draining pot of any material that's about 14 inches deep and 14 to 24 inches in diameter to accommodate root growth. The container and tree can be quite heavy so consider putting the potted plant on casters, which will also lift it off the ground to help with drainage.

Pruning

Pruning is not usually necessary for this tree unless branches are growing the wrong way or there are dead, diseased, or dying branches. If you do wish to prune, do so at the end of winter and into early spring. You can also train the shrub so that it has more of a tree form with a single trunk.

Propagating the Strawberry Tree

Propagation of a strawberry tree is possible through cuttings and layering. The process of letting the seedlings of strawberry trees grow enough to plant them outdoors takes patience, which is why layering may work best. The best time to take cuttings from a strawberry tree is in July with a sterilized garden cutting tool. Use rooting hormone on the cuttings and keep them in bright light until they are hardy enough for outdoor planting.

How to the Grow Strawberry Tree From Seed

Seeds from the strawberry tree's fruits are naturally spread by birds who consume the berries. If you want to grow the strawberry tree from seeds, gather them when you harvest the berries and put them through the stratification process. It may take quite a bit of time before you have a large enough plant to put in the ground outside.

Overwintering

Younger trees may need protective burlap covers in cold weather and frosts to prevent damage to flowers and fruits. Covers can also protect the younger trees from cold winds.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Strawberry trees can be affected by many common plant diseases, including Annosus root rot disease, anthracnose, leaf spots, leaf galls, phytophthora (a fungus), sudden oak death, and twig dieback.

Common pests that may strike your strawberry shrub include aphids, flatheaded borers, leafminers, scale, thrips, and Western tent caterpillar (Malacosoma californicum).

FAQ
  • Is the Arbutus unedo tree easy to grow?

    Yes, it's easy to grow because the strawberry tree is not finicky, especially when it's established and it can be left on its own to thrive. It is one of the easiest ornamental trees to grow in your yard and your job is to watch for pests and diseases.

  • Is Arbutus unedo fruit edible?

    The strawberry tree's fruits are edible, but when fresh, they can have a rough exterior texture, mushy interior, and muted semi-sweet flavor. However some people do like to cook the berries and use them in jellies and preserves.

  • Does Arbutus unedo attract wildlife?

    Birds love the berries of Arbutus unedo, and they also enjoy the shelter provided by this dense tree. The strawberry tree also attracts bees, birds, including hummingbirds, and butterflies because of its blooms filled with nectar and pollen.