By Canopy Team on February 24, 2020
Tree Spotlight Series: Follow along as we learn about the fascinating trees that live among us. This series is in partnership with Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Other posts in the series: ginkgo biloba, Douglas fir, giant sequoia, Chinese tallow, silver-dollar gum, Monterey pine, green dracaena, coast live oak, cork oak, Japanese maple, silver birch, dawn redwood, Japanese persimmon ‘Hachiya’, carob, California bay, avocado, southern magnolia, flowering dogwood, red ironbark eucalyptus, blackwood acacia, narrow leaved paperbark, cockspur coral, Chinese pistache, California pepper tree, toyon, and Italian cypress.
The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a small evergreen shrub adorned with white, bell-shaped flowers that yield crimson fruits closely resembling strawberries. Upon closer inspection, however, these red ornaments are spherical and sport protruding bristles.
During fall to midwinter, the strawberry tree will begin to burst into a brilliant display of white flowers drooping from the tips of its branches. Once the flowers are pollinated, they give rise to fruits that slowly ripen over the course of twelve months. At the apex of the fruits’ maturity in autumn, they develop a vibrant red color that contrasts beautifully with new white flowers blooming at the same time.
The fruit is bland and sandy in texture when eaten raw. In fact, the species name ‘unedo’ is Latin for ‘I eat one only’, giving a hint towards how unappetizing the fruit from this tree can be. However, the fruits can be processed and turned into jam, marmalade, yogurt, and even alcoholic beverages.
In Portugal, the fruit is made into a brandy called aguardente de medronhos or a honey liquor called Dom Cristina. Certain regions of Albania also use the fruit (referred to as “kocimare”) to create the traditional rakia drink. From the flowers, Sardinians create a bitter honey referred to as miele di corbezzolo. This honey can be used for homeopathic purposes, and is seen as a rare product due to the strawberry tree’s short flowering period.
The strawberry tree is not only pretty, but also pioneering. It can recolonize a previously biodiverse ecosystem, and is often used to help restore degraded ecosystems and prevent desertification. It is fire resistant and can regrow after a forest fire, making it a good candidate for reforestation purposes.
In addition, bees eat nectar from the tree’s flowers while birds feed on the fruits. These ecosystem services make the strawberry tree an effective means of reintroducing biodiversity to an ecosystem.
This portrait of the strawberry tree would not be complete without understanding its roots in history. Since the classical era (roughly between the 8th century B.C.E. and the 6th century C.E.), this elegant tree has made its way into various aspects of human culture.
In 13th-century Madrid, the strawberry tree became a symbol on the city’s coat of arms to represent the city council’s new acquisition and control over local forests. For years, the council and town clergy argued over the possession of local land. When it was finally agreed that the forests would go to the council, the coat of arms was changed as a symbol of this compromise. The design, which portrays a bear foraging from a strawberry tree, has since remained unchanged and can be found most famously as a statue in the center of Madrid. Though the strawberry tree was not a prominent specimen in Madrid at the time, this colorful yet practical plant can now be found abundantly in the city.
You can find the Arbutus unedo on Canopy’s Palo Verde neighborhood tree walk in Palo Alto.
David Hoang was a 2019 summer intern at the Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science. He is as undergraduate student majoring in bioengineering at the University of California San Diego. In his free time, he enjoys listening to podcasts and practicing photography.