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When to Prune a Strawberry Tree?

February 12, 2009

Kathy from Browns Point, WA asks:

When can I trim my stawberry trees, to grow wider?”

Arbutus unedo Blooming in November

Arbutus unedo Blooming in November

By Strawberry Tree, I’m going to assume you’re referring to Arbutus unedo. Several plants have the common name Straweberry Bush or Strawberry Tree, so we’ll go with the Arbutus for this answer.

The Arbutus unedo is a cousin of our Pacific Madrone Tree (Arbutus menziesii), and it is a beautiful shrub or tree offering reddish peeling bark, evergreen leaves, and a confusing habit of blooming and ripening fruit all at the same time. This makes pruning a little tricky.

Since A. unedo blooms and forms beautiful ripe fruits in early autumn, it’s tough to time pruning. First, pruning in late fall, right after blooming and fruiting, can cause the plant to put on a lot of new growth just as we go into the cold season, which can cause it to experience dieback on areas of growth that didn’t have time in the season to harden off for winter. Second, if we prune it in Spring, as we head into the growth surge time, which would encourage new growth and perhaps meet your desire to “widen” the plant, you risk removing the fruit that is forming from last year’s blooms. And, if you wait until late spring/summer, you again risk removing fruit as well as the flowers forming to bloom in fall. So, there’s no ideal time here.

I’m not sure what you’re hoping to achieve in terms of widening the plant. I hope you don’t intend to top it/shear it. That would ruin it’s fantastic natural form and beauty. Instead, it should be pruned like a tree. Start by getting in to clear out the dead, crossing/rubbing branches. Then selectively make cuts to encourage new growth. Since I can’t see the plant and evaluate the circumstances, I hesitate to try to provide anything more than that.  When you cut is going to be based your needs. If you want it to put on a lot of new growth, probably late winter/early spring is your best bet, but you do run the risk of having a low fruiting/flowering season in the fall.

If you would like to set up an appointment to review this plant together, please get in touch. And, thanks for writing in!


  1. Melanthia says:

    I’ve got an Arbutus in a pot on our west facing deck right now. It weathered the snow and general gloom pretty well. Since it’s in a pot for now, any recommendations for fertilizing or anything?

  2. rhaglund says:


    Thanks for writing in. I wouldn’t fertilize anything right now. It’s too cold for the plants to do anything with fertilizer. Not sure how big the pot is, or the plant for that matter, but keep in mind that these plants get big and may become difficult (or even impossible) to transplant out of a decorative container without breaking the container. So, if you can, try to get it in the ground soon.

  3. Melanthia says:

    Thanks. The plant is only about 30 inches tall and the pot’s about 12 inches across.

  4. Clare Owen says:

    My Arbutus unedo is now 3 m tall and only has foliage at the top. In lots of ways I like it as it is, but it was for a number of years held up by other shrubs that all got out of hand because I was abroad. I had to cut these back and the arbutus does not now have the support it once had and some of the branches are a bit weak. I have just cut one back to two stem buds and thought I would wait and see what happens. I thought of doing more earlier on and foregoing the flowers for a year, but I wanted to see what would happen. In fact there are no strawberries this year. I have fertilised it and put ericacious soil under it and hope next year it will feel better.
    I should say that I am in Oxfordshire, UK.

  5. Michelle Walker says:

    We just had our backyard landscaped and we now have 4 Arbutus Unedo trees that are about 10 – 12′ tall. They were planted during the heavy rain in clay soil and the drainage is not perfect. The trees were planted about 4 weeks ago. Now they are all wilty looking and the leaves are browning and getting cruncy. Our weather is now in the 80’s and 90’s so I’m hoping the soil dries up and they start looking better. I thought they were just in shock but now I think they are in trouble. Help!

  6. Michelle,

    Without seeing the trees, its hard to know what’s going on. It definitely sounds like they’re having an issue at the roots. Sometimes too much water & not enough air can cause these issues. Sometimes the tree gets damaged as its planted, which leads to the roots not doing their job properly, which leads to die back. Sometimes there’s not enough water on hot days & plants crisp up.

    I’d suggest you get your installer back to review the work. Or, bring in a local gardening consultant — an arborist if you can locate one — and have the plants and the planting job reviewed.

  7. Michelle Walker says:

    I took some pictures and sent them to my landscaper. They look even worse this week. Thanks for your advice.

  8. Laura says:

    I’m so glad to find this thread. I pruned ours and everywhere I cut, several new branches started. Would late fall be the time to prune to avoid this? It really needs thinning out. Many thanks.

  9. It’s probably more a matter of where you are making your pruning cuts on the branch rather than when you are pruning the tree in the year. Fall is not a good time to prune. A strawberry tree should be blooming and showing off ripening fruit this time of year. Plus, freeZing temps are nearly upon us. Let the plant enter dormancy without cutting on it. Consider pruning branches to points of origin in late winter or early spring instead.

  10. […] the robins will provide hours of goofy, drunken entertainment. Plant fall and winter bloomers like Arbutus unedo and Witchhazel, and you may see hummingbirds […]

  11. Charleen Schuster says:

    I want to get an Arbutus Bush-Strawberry Bush-Tree this spring. I would like to know where in Bellevue-Issaquah, Woodenville I can fine one.
    Thanks for any help you can give me!

  12. Charleen, let us know what size and any other specifics via contact form here & we’ll be happy to see about supplying one to you!

  13. Katrina says:

    Hi. We just moved into a house that has a very large (tall and wide) Arbutus bush. It also has many dead branches and branches that only have leaves at the very end. I’m curious if I can prune it properly to turn it into a tree, rather than a bush. Then I can use the ground for other plants. If I can, how and when do I do it. I’m happy to send a photo somewhere so you can see it. Thanks for the advice.

  14. Katrina, Arbutus undo can work well as trees. It’s likely, based on your description, that the dead branches are on the interior. Removing dead material just about anytime when things aren’t frozen is fine. Planting below a mature Arbutus may be more of a challenge. Minimizing root disruption is critical to the plant’s success. If you need help on the ground, fill out our contact form to schedule an on-site consultation or try hiring another local consultant to help you on your way. Site-unseen, it is nearly impossible to provide a complete assessment and recommendation. Best of luck!

  15. Rose-Marie Ullman says:

    My well-shaped and large arbutus unedo was already an adult tree when we moved into the house over 50 years ago. Over the years, it has grown to obstruct my view. I would like to remove the top 3 to 5 feet, which would probably mean cutting the top branches below where they bear leaves. Would that damage the tree?
    I’m in San Francisco.

  16. Rose-Marie, Thanks for writing in. What you’re describing sounds like you intend to “top” the tree, which may significantly damage if not kill the tree. If you’re unclear what topping is or why it isn’t a good idea, take a look at this article by Plant Amnesty: http://www.plantamnesty.org/don-t-top–5-reasons-not-to-top2.

    Before you make a cut, you might want to bring in a professional arborist to evaluate your opportunities. The ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) website may be a good starting point for you: http://www.isa-arbor.com/findanarborist/findanarborist.aspx.

    Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to open some “windows” through the scaffolding branches of the tree so that both the tree and what happens beyond it can both be part of your view.

    Good luck!

  17. I got someone to hopefully cut round strawberry tree to make it a bit smaller it was about 8 to 10 feet tall. unfortunately he cut off more than I wNTED INCLUDING SOME BRANCHES about 4 or 5 inches thick . Now with the cold wind we had the tree doesnt look very good. Have I killed it, Can I help it ?

  18. Patricia,

    What a bummer! These plants do want to grow big over time. Trying to keep plants small by chopping on them quite often backfires, as it sounds like you’ve learned. If the tree has defoliated and isn’t getting new growth for spring, it may very well be kaput. But, you might give it some extra time to bounce back this spring. Or, hire a local horticulturist to help you evaluate it’s state. Good luck!

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