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Plant Profile: Arbutus unedo

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Arbutus unedo: a special tree for many gardens & reasons!

Arbutus unedo is commonly called the strawberry tree. This lovely plant is a Mediterranean cousin to the NW native madrone and manzanitas. While not native to North America, this shrubby tree performs well in many Pacific Coast areas of the United States. We’ve enjoyed seeing them thrive as far south as Los Angeles and as far north as our own Seattle area garden.

Arbutus unedo ripening fruit

Ripening Arbutus unedo fruits in fall give rise to the common name strawberry tree.

How big do strawberry trees get?

Arbutus unedo trees can get quite large: think 20+’ tree! And, even the cultivar ‘Compacta’ matures into a particularly large shrub (or tree): think 15′.

Don’t be fooled by the the idea that compacta actually means compact with this one!

Drought tolerant Arbutus unedo garden selections include:

Once established, Arbutus unedo should be able to tolerate lower water conditions. But they may drop significantly more interior leaves under drought stress.

And, in the harshest Seattle winters, some cultivars like ‘Marina,’ readily give up the ghost. However, in more typical years, other strawberry tree varieties are true winter garden stars!

Some of the Strawberry tree’s spectacular features:

Not only is Arbutus unedo evergreen, but it also has spectacular, shredding reddish-brown bark. So, if you prune it into a tree form), you’ll enjoy both evergreen foliage and stunning bark throughout the year.

However, if you choose to train it as a shrub, you might not see much bark. But those medium-sized leaves will offer privacy for you. And your Arbutus will provide protective habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Arbutus unedo shaggy bark.

Rich peeling bark of the Arbutus unedo.

The Arbutus unedo in fall is spectacular because…

The beautiful leaves and bark aren’t this tree’s only winter quality. In fact, the strawberry tree also is at its showiest beginning around Halloween.

And that’s about the time many other plants are dropping leaves and going to earth (or the compost pile) for winter!

However, in early autumn Arbutus unedo begins to both ripen its fruit and open its flowers.

Arbutus unedo blooms in winter

Evergreen Arbutus unedo blooming in winter sunshine.

Beginning in early autumn, clusters of roundish, strawberry-textured fruits transform from pale green to varying shades of yellow, orange and red.

Can you eat the strawberry tree’s fruit?

Arbutus unedo fruit is considered edible. And many use it to infuse in booze. Others may enjoy gobbling down the mushy fruits. However,  you probably won’t want to gobble up the fruit like you would a real strawberry. But, you might see a crow, raven or squirrel chowing down on them.

An aside about this tree’s fruit…

When I (Robin) was in horticulture school, upon learning that this fruit can be edible, one student claimed that the name “unedo” means “eat just one”.

While I haven’t been able to verify that statement, I can say I’ve eaten one, and one was was plenty. I’m not sick or dead from eating it, but I’d have to be starving to eat another one. The texture is mushy, and they aren’t flavorful.

Strawberry tree blooms are beautiful & important to pollinators!

Dangling white chandeliers of bell-shaped flowers drip from branches throughout the strawberry tree’s branches. And, the flowers begin to open in October. Moreover, this Arbutus often blooms well into the following spring.

Because they open just as a majority of pollinator foods go dormant, this fantastic plant may be the one to keep your garden hummingbirds from moving on for winter. And, if you’re fortunate enough to have a dry, warmish day, butterflies and bees of all kinds will find their way to your winter garden too.

Butterfly feeding on Arbutus unedo in late autumn

Butterflies, bees, hoverflies & hummingbirds feed on Arbutus unedo nectar in fall & winter.

Need help caring for your strawberry tree?

Learn more about pruning Arbutus unedo in this article. And if you’d like more help learning more about gardening, sign up for our online programs today!

3 comments on “Plant Profile: Arbutus unedo

  1. Skyla Pierre on

    I found one in Salem, Oregon at Bush Park. I was fascinated. It wasnt anything Id seen before very pretty.

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