Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Strawberry Tree

Many years ago, when I was serving with the RAF in Gibraltar, there was considerable poverty in Southern Spain, the tourism boom on the Costa del Sol having barely started. Children, keen to earn a few pesetas, would sell to unwary visitors dishes of fruit from the strawberry trees which were common locally. The customers would take one bite and then discard the remainder; the plant thus lived up to its Latin name of Arbutus unedo, for "unedo" means "eat once". It is not that the fruits are poisonous, they are just very insipid (and apparently, if consumed in large quantities, slightly narcotic).
Arbutus unedo growing in a garden, Gythio,
Greece. 27 April, 2014

The Strawberry Tree makes a good garden plant, forming a small tree with attractive glossy bark. It bears flowers rather like Lily of the Valley (though sadly unscented) followed by the bright red fruit. It is unusual among the Heather Family, Ericaceae, in being happy on limy soil. In fact, wherever I have seen it growing wild - in Majorca, Spain, Italy and Portugal - it has always been growing where limestone rocks are in evidence. 

Mention of Spain and Portugal raises another point: western Spain together with modern Portugal formed the Roman province of Lusitania, and the Strawberry Tree is a member of the so-called Lusitanian flora of the British Isles. This is a group of fifteen or so plants found in the south and west of Ireland and almost nowhere else in Britain. They include St Dabeoc's Heath, Daboecia cantabrica (see footnote) and Mackay's Heath, Erica mackaiana, both also members of the Heather Family. A very useful contribution to the debate appears in the journal British Wildlife for April, 2014. In this article the author, Trevor Beebee, points out that the Lusitanian element of our wildlife also includes the Kerry Slug, the Burren Green Moth and the Pyrenean Glass Snail. Curiouser and curiouser!

All are native to parts of Spain or Portugal and, although various explanations have been offered for their presence in Ireland, none is fully satisfactory. The Strawberry Tree has also become naturalised in several parts of southern England, having probably been bird-sown, but is borderline hardy further north. I grew it in Northampton but the trunk was split from top to bottom in a particularly hard frost and the plant failed to survive.

Having recently moved into a new house I am likely to have another bash at growing this charming plant. There are in fact 14 species of Arbutus but only about three are likely to be seen in cultivation. I could try a North American species, Arbutus menziesii, or the Greek Strawberry Tree, A. andrachne, but I'm likely to stick with A. unedo.

Footnote  The genus Daboecia was established by David Don, a Scottish botanist. The name seems to have been a reference to an obscure Irish saint, St Dabeoc, but there is clearly some confusion over the spelling. St Dabeoc, patron saint of Lough Derg in County Donegal, was sometimes referred to as St Beoc but never, as far as I have been able to establish, as St Daboec.

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