Growing the Strawberry Tree—Arbutus unedo

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree), fruit & flower, october
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There is a common perception 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.

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, and a curious person would have to partake of only one before finding that out. The strawberry tree belongs to the Ericaceae family. Other members of the same family 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 addition to strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo is also called Killarney strawberry tree, Irish strawberry tree, cane apples, Dalmation strawberry, or simply arbutus. On the coat of arms for the city of Madrid, Spain, a bear is reaching up to grab fruit from a strawberry tree.

Planting Zones and Exposure

Grow this shrub in USDA plant hardiness zones 7 through 10. It originally comes from western Europe and the Mediterranean region. The planting location should receive either full sun or partial shade during the day.

Size and Shape

Many cultivars of strawberry tree in the United States reach a mature size of 8 to 12 feet tall and wide, though the species can become a tree as tall as 35 feet in the right conditions. It forms into a round shape.

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The leaves of the strawberry tree are shiny and dark, 2 to 4 inches long, and oblong in shape. The plant bears urn-shaped flowers that grow in clusters and are either white or pink. They appear in fall and winter.

The fruits are round and measure up to 1 inch in diameter. 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.

Growing and Design Tips

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.

It is important to water regularly for the first year so that the tree can form a strong root. This will make it 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.

Maintenance and Pruning

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 wish to prune, do so at the end of winter.

You can also train the shrub into a standard so it has more of a tree form. It does not work well as a hedge. Propagation is possible through seed germination or with cuttings.

Pests and Diseases of the Strawberry Tree

Strawberry trees can be affected by a number of common diseases:

  • 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 your strawberry shrub include:

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