Strawberries don’t grow on trees! Everyone knows that.
But you might be surprised, as my friend Linda was, to learn that you may already have this edible growing in your yard.
Strawberry trees are members of the heath or heather family (Ericaceae), making them cousins to blueberries, lingonberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Native to the Mediterranean region, these trees are often mistaken for manzanita and other ornamental landscape trees. The brightly colored, spiky fruits may not look edible at first glance. It ends up they don’t taste good when eaten too soon, either.
Strawberry tree fruit
Strawberry tree fruit has a bumpy surface and is about the size of a small walnut. These berries are sweet once they turn red, but not before. Even then, their taste is described as bland by some. Supposedly, Pliny the Elder gave this plant its name after saying, “Unum tantum edo.” (I only eat one) We don't know why. Maybe he didn't like it. Maybe he found the rich, custard-like texture of one fruit satisfying.
These fruits have tiny seeds which, to some, may make the fruit seem gritty, like a kiwifruit. My friend assures me that, once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to stand under the tree and keep eating!
So, why haven’t you seen these fruits in the grocery store?
Unlike apples and pears, which can be picked unripe and shipped and stored, strawberry tree fruit is very soft and it bruises easily. If you want strawberry tree fruit, you’ll have to grow your own tree or find a neighbor who already has one.
[I wonder how many other edible plants we know nothing about, simply because grocery stores can't sell them…]
How strawberry trees grow
These evergreen trees average 15’ tall and 10’ wide, but they can grow 30’ tall. The grayish-brown bark peels away, exposing a lovely reddish-brown inner bark, reminiscent of our beloved manzanita.
These trees grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10 and they love sunny, dry climates. Dark green, glossy leaves are 2-4” long and 1” wide, with red stems. White flowers appear in autumn, around the same time the previous year’s fruit is ready for harvesting.
Because the flowers are hermaphroditic, you only need one tree. These trees are moderately drought and frost resistant and can tolerate shade and salt. Like other family members, strawberry trees prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil.
Aphids and fungal leaf spot are the most common problems faced by these trees. Other potential pests include flathead borers, leaf miners, scale insects, thrips, and western tent caterpillars. Other diseases that may infect your strawberry tree include annosus root disease, anthracnose, Arbutus leaf spots, leaf galls, phytophthora, sudden oak death, and twig dieback. Many of these diseases can be prevented with good drainage.
Strawberry tree varieties
There are three different varieties of European strawberry tree: the Spanish Arbutus canariensis, the Greek A. andrachne, and the topic of our discussion today, A. unedo. There is a North America cousin, the madrone or madrone tree (A. menziesii), but the genetic connection is too distant to allow for easy hybridization. European cousins can cross-pollinate, but fruit production is intermittent to unlikely. One variety often found in California is a cross between A. unedo and A. andrachne. It is labeled Arbutus x Marina because of the San Francisco district where it was hybridized.
Strawberry trees can be grown from seeds or semi-hardwood cuttings. If you decide to grow a strawberry tree, local hummingbirds, butterflies, and birds will be glad you did.
You might, too. Thanks, Linda!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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