The Pacific Northwest suffers no paucity of beautiful broad-leafed evergreen trees. In addition to bringing verdant texture to the winter garden, many like Magnolias and Camellias reward the gardener (and indeed all who see them) with spectacular spring blooms.
The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is in a class of its own. It blooms in clusters of small cream to white urn-shaped flowers from late summer into winter and, at the same time, is covered in fruits — sparkling, jewel-like fruits.
Measuring a bit less than an inch in diameter, the perfectly spherical berries are a brilliant, glistening red, as vivid as the ripest, most succulent strawberry. Seeing one of these trees for the first time in its late-season splendor will make any lover of natural beauty stop and stare.
The dark green leaves of this tree are oblong, measuring two to three inches in length, on numerous branches and branchlets. This forming a dense mass, which, if left unpruned from the ground up, serves as a formidable barrier to any unwanted view.
The trick to making this plant a statuesque component of your garden is to put it in the right place and then, as it grows, “train it,” as fastidious gardeners like to say.
By selecting one or more upward reaching stems and pruning off side growth, you’ll form a trunk or cluster of trunks. As time passes, this Arbutus will stretch up to a height of 8 to 35 feet, exposing a reddish bark pattern that is both rugged, yet finely patterned, supporting an intricate canopy of dark green. This leafy dome can also be selectively pruned and thinned out to open the tree, exposing more of its form and allowing light to the plantings below.
There are about 14 species in the Arbutus genus, Manzanita and Madrona among them. There also are several cultivated varieties of Arbutus undo, all smaller than the parent plant. Look for ‘Compacta’ if you want a tree that will top out at 10 feet in height, ‘Elfin King’ is a bonafide dwarf which will reach five feet in height in a decade.
Native to southern Europe and Ireland, the strawberry tree is perfectly hardy in our gentle climate and happy in a wide range of soils. It stands up to our soggy winters, and the toughest of our summer droughts, with nary a murmur or complaint.
Simply follow the simplest rules of good gardening to establish a plant in your garden. Dig a million-dollar hole for a ten-dollar plant. Soak the plant well the day before planting. Loosen the root ball once out of the container. Set the plant in the hole and fill the hole thrice with water, allowing it to sink in, saturating the soil all around. Fill in the hole and tamp down the soil. Water again. Don’t let the plant dry out in its first summer in your garden. After that, allow nature to do the irrigation.
Now, it is fair to say, most great beauties have their downside. While you can’t blame a strawberry tree for being temperamental, or invasive… it is messy. Old leaves drop, almost continuously, through the year. When the blossoms drop, they collect in a somewhat fragrant litter beneath the plant. And when the fruits fall, they squish under foot. The answer is simple: do not site this plant (as I have woefully done) next to a walkway or patio. Otherwise, you’ll be sweeping under it daily in autumn when the drop is heaviest. Put the plant out in a bed where the droppings will quickly decompose, turning into top soil.
The great books on arboriculture will tell you, with what seems like an edge of pride, that the gorgeous fruits are edible and can be used in preserves and even alcoholic beverages. I bit into one once — once was enough. The fruit is mealy initially, and upon chewing turns slimy, and there is little or no flavor. The advice here is, devour these amazing fruits with your eyes alone.
Still, this tree is well worth a spot in any garden and a good choice for the small urban plot. It’s a sight to behold and, to my way of thinking, the moniker, strawberry tree, doesn’t do it justice. Had I given it a common name, I’d have called it Tree of Jewels.