Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Unlikely Holiday Tree

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many of us will set about with holiday lights in hand. One tree that thrives on the central coast of Oregon decorates itself-- Arbutus unedo or Strawberry Tree.

The common name misleads, causing the gardener to imagine a late-spring or summer harvest of the red fruits.  Happily, the fruits in question are actually borne on this tree in late fall and early winter.  While edible, they are a little mushy and don't taste like strawberries.  The fruits are about 3/4", deep red and textured with tiny seeds, but the resemblance ends there.  The fruits conjure tiny Christmas ball-ornaments, seemingly lit from within.  On the coast they appear in late October into November, previewing the season.

This remarkable evergreen tree is native to the Mediterranean coast, and possibly related to our native Pacific Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii)-- hence the shared genus.  Like madrone, it sports reddish-brown bark that peels gracefully, and is clothed in glossy evergreen leaves.  The clusters of white flowers are typical of the family Ericaceae, to which the madrone also belongs, as well as blueberries, rhododendron and heather.  Like all these family members, the Strawberry Tree appreciates our mild climate and acidic soils.   Set back just a block or two from coastal beachfront, it tolerates the wind and rain just fine.
Arbutus unedo can reach 15' tall.

The Strawberry Tree can be planted and maintained as a striking singular focal point, pruned to expose and highlight the bark and fruit in season.  However on the coast this dense evergreen is sometimes allowed to spread and sheared into a hedge, similar in texture to Pacific Wax Myrtle.  As the fruit takes almost the full year to develop from the flower stage, it will be removed if the timing of pruning is too late or frequent.  For the best fruit display, it should be sheared or pruned immediately after the last crop is gone.

Arbutus flowers in November
If you are visiting Lincoln City, a good example of this tree in several forms can be found on a single public landscape, the post office on East Devils Lake Road (across from the Tanger Outlet Mall).  Walk around to the side of this corner lot and up a set of stairs, and there at the top you will see a very large (15'+) specimen. Continue further toward the building to see several that have been sheared into "green meatballs" for an example of this plant's use as a hedging material.  You will note that no fruit remains due to shearing.  Back down to the sidewalk, walk north to the truck entrance and there is the nicest one of all, a neglected (unsheared) tree that has been allowed to form flowers and fruit, brilliant on my last visit in November.

Flowers and fruit borne simultaneously
Sheared into green meatballs

More fun facts on the history and uses of this wonderful tree can be found on the Oregon State University landscape department website, and many pictures to compare A. unedo and A. menziesii.


  1. I didn't know they were edible fruits! I also didn't know they could be pruned so small. I always think of arbutus being rather big. I guess I am thinking of a different species. Great article, thanks!

  2. I think that makes a pretty cool holiday tree.