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Arbutus unedo f. rubra

Arbutus unedo f. rubra
Arbutus unedo f. rubra

Strawberry tree is native to Mediterranean Europe, western France and southwest Ireland. The origin of the disjunct population of plants in Ireland seems to remain a matter of debate, with some lay references suggesting a human origin, some suggesting a post-glacial advance into Ireland from France when the English Channel was dry and others advancing the notion that this plant existed on Ireland prior to the the Ice Ages and survived that era. I'm certain I had read a research paper a couple years ago that suggested what I thought was a fairly definitive answer, but I haven't been able to track it down yet, so expect an update to this entry.

To read more about Arbutus unedo, see strawberry tree from the BBC's Gardeners Corner and Arbutus unedo from the Plants for a Future site.

In other news, Tangled Bank #43 is up and running on the Rural Rambles weblog. If you're new to Tangled Bank, it's a collection of recent science-based writing from weblogs around the world hosted by a different weblog every other week. It's a great way to be introduced (or reintroduced) to other weblogs with a science focus.

Natural history / evolution / art resource link: Of all the links I've suggested in BPotD, I would argue this one is in the top-ten “must-sees”. Long-time natural history illustrator Carl Buell has started a weblog entitled Olduvai George. There are only a few entries so far, but it's already apparent that Olduvai George is something special. If you comment on any of his entries (and you should, to encourage him to continue), please tell him you were sent via BPotD!


Arbutus unedo - Z7, RHS Index of Garden Plants, Griffiths

This is a wonderful and rewarding plant to grow and looks clean and shapely all year. The bright red fruits provide nice contrast to the evergreen leaves. The bell-shaped flowers, though not showy, are attractive. If the normal form is too large for your garden, a good choice is A. unedo "compacta", which only grows to about 4-5 feet in height- I've got one of these and it lends a Mediterranean feel to my front landscaping, where I have planted drought-tolerant plants.

Just a word about the scientific name of this plant, for those who have requested meanings. The origin of the term "arbutus" is somewhat unclear, but it appears to be the ancient latin name for this species. According to the Oregon State University Department of Horticulture, "unedo" comes from the Latin "unum edo" meaning "I eat one," perhaps implying that the granular fruits are unpalatable. Indeed, from refereneces that I have seen, this seems to be pretty much the case, though I did find one reference to a preserves being made from them. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a native relative to the Mediterranean Strawberry Tree, the Madrone (Arbutus menziesii).

Zone 7 is perhaps a bit optimistic, hard winters sometimes burn it here in Seattle area (Zone 8). It wouldn't persist long on the west slope of the Cascade Mountains, which the USDA map has in Zone 7 (all the way to the crest).

Prone to what appears to be same spotting and blackening that afflicts Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, likewise probably needs open exposure and open soil texture to give its best. 4-5ft would be a true dwarf like A. unedo 'Elfin King'. Plants sold here as A. unedo 'Compacta' grow much larger, may be a seed strain or mixed up, as differing floral and foliage characteristics can be seen right in the same block at a nursery. So, even if there is/was a true dwarf on the market under A. unedo 'Compacta' chances seem high plants purchased under that name will not fit the bill.


You may be right about a tag mix-up at a nursery-it does happen a lot. I bought this from a nursery I know and trust. All I can say is I have had in the ground for two years and it has been growing very slowly (as I expected it to), but it looks healthy. I have tried to give it optimum growing conditions- southern exposure, good-draining soil, pleny of room for air on the leaves. As far as hardiness, I live in Battle Ground, WA which is "officially" in zone 8, but really is probably more a transition between zone 7 and 8. We're usually a bit cooler than nearby Portland and Vancouver. We have some very hard frosts here- including some all this week with morning lows in the mid-20s, and it doesn't appear to phase my plant.

We "lost"our strawberry tree last winter @-12 with more than several inches of snow. Not sure if it was the cold temperature or the unusal (for here) presence of deep snow for more than 10 days. I've lost the tag, but it was in the 4-5 foot range after 7 years growth. I loved the "fruit" in the winter, for the bright color.

On the Irish distribution, over here it is pretty universally accepted that it is a genuine native in Ireland (no human assistance), and that it survived the glaciation on land that is now below sea level off the west coast of Ireland (the sea level having risen about 200m since the height of the glaciation). It isn't confined to southwest Ireland, there's also a native locality in Galway (toward the northwest of Ireland).

It is thought that a few other trees also survived the glaciation there, notably Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) of which there is a genetically distinct population in westernmost Scotland (Loch Maree / Shieldaig area); unfortunately the Irish native populations of Scots Pine became extinct through overcutting by about 1600-1700, so there's none left to analyse to see if they fit in with that. Other Scots Pines in central and eastern Scotland are genetically closer to Swedish trees.

"unedo" - I've eaten rather more than one! They're perfectly edible, they just don't have any worthwhile flavour, and the gritty skin isn't too nice in the mouth.

Ooops, sorry, by Lough Gill, County Sligo (not Galway). Tho' Sligo is even further north than Galway. Lough Gill is at 54°20'N 8°25'W.

How is the arbutus surviving the ice age climate in Ireland explained?


Regarding the edibility of the arbutus fruits, what you say sounds like a classic case of damning with faint praise to me! Thanks for the interesting information about the Irish populations- and also for Pinus sylvestris. What a shame there aren't any left.

Dorothy- I'm curious, where do you live? I haven't noticed any trouble with cold weather thus far (and, of course, I hope I don't!)

Yeah, their texture is a little weird--kindof pasty on the inside. They could potentially be good for jams though.

interesting. Is it a lychee relative? looks uncannily similar. My favorite fruit by far. neat picture too.

You're right- the fruits do look similar to lychee, but the resemblance is only superficial. Lychee is in the plant family Sapindaceae, whereas Arbutus is an ericaceous plant (belonging to the large family Ericaceae, which also includes rhododendrons, heather, vacciniums, and a host of other familiar temperate plants).

Hi Ron,

"How is the arbutus surviving the ice age climate in Ireland explained?"

Look at the 200m submarine contour (i.e., the ice age coastline). There's some large areas there that were not glaciated, and close to the ocean were probably quite mild. There was an additional oceanic island too at 53°N 13°W, 100-150 km off the then Irish west coast.

The probably in “probably quite mild” is the stickler. I find it hard to imagine the ecological requirements of this plant being met a few hundred kilometres away from a massive icesheet. It might be possible depending on the path of warm water from the tropics, though.

My tree was killed to the ground during a bad winter
when even the native A. menziesii was damaged,
but resprouted. It seldom produces fruit, but its
midwinter flowers provide nectar for our overwintering
Anna's hummingbirds here in Victoria, B.C.

Regarding edible use of Arbutus unedo, Facciola, CORNUCOPIA II (Kampong Publications) says

"The sweet, somewhat mealy fruits are eaten raw, preserved, used in sherbets, or made into syrup, wine, aguardente, liqueurs, or a ciderlike beverage. In Portugal there is a large-fruited form grown from seeds which is sold in the markets. Source of the famous miele di corbezzelo of Sardinia, a rare chestnut-colored honey that is highly esteemed for its pungent, spicy flavor featuring overtones of peppery mint or menthol."

Click on my name to get my postal address, if anyone wants to send me some of that honey!

I guess there are no Sardinian honeymakers posting here.

Oh, there might be. I don't think the honey would need to be sent express.

If you want to order some Miele di Corbezzolo honey, you can mail-order it from The Perfect Coffee Shop at (URL removed by Daniel Mosquin)

Steve, thanks for being kind enough to suggest a place. I've had a look through the site you mentioned, and I discovered that it is a site that essentially pulls in information from Amazon and resells. I would've been okay with it, but it didn't seem to work properly in my browser, so it made me a bit suspicious (and one can never be too suspicious on the Web). So, better safe than sorry.

If anyone else wants to locate the product, you can go directly to Amazon and search Gourmet Foods for Miele di Corbezzolo.

Speaking of palatabilty, deer seem to love eating the foliage of arbutus unedo. I had hoped that, considering the success of the native Arbutus menziesii in the Victoria (B.C.) area, the ever-hungry deer would give it a such luck!

We have a Arbutus unedo tree that has had (for ~ 3 years) a fungus on the leaves (which grow up normally but then get black spots and curl up and dry). Any suggestions how to treat fungus in this tree; the usual fungicides don't work. Thanks.

For George s sake don t fall into the gorge.
Olduvai is a gorge but George comes from Ge as in Gaia org ios of the earth or of the soil a worker hence a farmer peasant or husbandman. Georgios. George.
Somebody else tell us the etymology of gorge perhaps merely gorge as in throat or gullet or larynopharynx en francais s il vous plait.
Or breast. In L Oeuvre Emile Zola writes for breast gorge being prudish and more Victorian than the English when his roman a clef Monet or Cezanne paints a lost waif as she falls asleep in his garret fleeing a drenching storm. Monet of the water lilies so I am wrong it was Manet who painted the shocking nudes with their gorges. Nor with their Georges.

I have two strawberry trees (arbutus unedo) that
have been for some 18 years and have done very well
until this year and I see a lot of yellowing of the
leaves on one of them! Do I need to worry about losing this tree??

Arbutus menziesii has been mentioned several times the comments, which brings up a question. Is there evidence of hybridization? A. unedo is grown frequently as a landscaping plant. The grounds of one public school in Tigard or Tualatin, Oregon has quite a few growing along the parking lot.

I wonder also if they have the ability to serve as a root stock for A. menziesii, since our native Arbutus is desirable but difficult to transplant.

Thanks very helpful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks for the interesting posts. We have one in our front garden near the coast in Perth Western Australia. I have been picking 10-15 berrys from the tree, or collecting from the ground beneath every day for the last few weeks. Sweet almost peach like in flavour but quite gritty. I don't know the age of our tree as it was here when we bought the house but it is about 3-4 metres tall and the canopy(?)about 6 metres in diameter. Feel free to contact me if you want more info.

After living in our new house for about 2 years now I finally took the time to figure out what the three trees in our back yard were. Arbutus Unedo for sure. I trimmed the trees way bakc last fall and now the fruit is coming like crazy. Not exactly sure the best way to prepare it, but the taste is sweet and a gritty and overall pleasent. Any preparation ideas?

I've been eating this fruit raw for quite a while. There are several of these trees lining the walk-way in front of a building at work. I find that if you gently roll them on a cloth, like denim or some other cotton, a lot of the 'grittiness' from the skin is removed. The flavor is mild, with hints of citrus and plum.
If I were of a mind to prepare them I'd probably try making simple preserves out of them, or maybe a sorbet, wash and freeze the whole fruits, then into the food processor or blender with some simple syrup. Yeah, and drizzle that with juice from one of my neighbors pomegranates... this will work well.

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