The Irish strawberry tree (Arbutus Unedo) is named for the plant’s prevalence in Ireland, although it grows across much of Europe, and the resemblance of its fruit to (you guessed it) strawberries. A member of the heath family, along with blueberries, the Irish strawberry tree has been culturally and historically important in many European growing regions.
The scientific name, Arbutus unedo, references Pliny the Elder, and is commonly thought to refer to the fact the fruit is not as delicious as a strawberry (unedo is a contraction of Pliny’s ‘unam tantum edo’, translated as, ‘I only eat one’). Don’t let the name put you off – the fruit are quite palatable and very fuss-free to grow.
These medium-sized evergreen trees are long-lived, grow well in a wide variety of soils and will tolerate the extremes of drought and frost; although variable weather can impact on successful fruiting. Sweet, nodding, bell-shaped flowers are a bonus for bees and have made A. unedo a popular ornamental tree.
Traditionally the plants have been wild-foraged, which makes them very easy to grow; they can also grow in urban settings. They require little cultivation, no pruning or irrigation, and will be quite happy if simply left to their own devices. Propagating the trees can be hit and miss – seed germination is low and cuttings don’t have a great strike rate. They can, however, be fairly easily purchased from specialty nurseries or cultivated from an existing specimen through layering.
The small fruit are sweetest to eat, when harvested as bright red. The fruit ripen from a light orange colour to strawberryred over a fairly long period in autumn and winter; although, again, this can vary with the weather. The fruit spoils quickly so they are best eaten fresh. Tasting a combination of sweet and tart with soft flesh, their flavour is very inoffensive; but the crunchy texture of the outside of the fruit, coupled with mushy insides, can be off-putting for some people. The fruit are commonly made into jams, fruit drinks or cooked in cakes and pastries.
Irish strawberry trees are significant as a forage plant for bees – they flower over a long period of time. With their small glossy leaves, Irish strawberry trees are fire-resistant, and have been known to regrow after being burned. They can be useful, too, when regenerating poor soils. They will often grow where many other species would not, providing useful soil structure and preventing erosion.
A. unedo are very easy to grow, which has led to their popularity in permaculture food forest designs as a fruit tree requiring very few inputs. That said, they can reportedly suffer from common problems such as root rot and leaf spot and are known to be attacked by some insect pests. Birds are also attracted to their fruit, though it is so plentiful that bagging is not really practical or necessary – there’s usually plenty for you and the birds!
If not harvested, the bright red fruit will carpet the ground underneath the trees and will quickly disintegrate into a slippery mush. The best solution is to simply eat – unlike Pliny the Elder – more than one!
Irish Strawberry Jam
The consistency of this yummy jam is somewhere between quince paste and apricot jam. It sounds even better when you call it by its Italian name, Marmellata di corbezzolo. It’s good eaten on toast or with crackers and cheese.
Ripe Irish strawberries, dash of water, raw sugar
- Wash fruit well and drain. Add fruit to a saucepan with a dash of water (just to stop it catching) and cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes, or until fruit begins to disintegrate.
- Pass cooked fruit through a fine sieve to remove gritty skins. You should be left with a smooth, orange puree.
- For each 100 g of puree, add 65 g of raw sugar. Mix. Return mixture to the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until jam reaches the setting point.