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Plant Profile: Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Straberry tree arbutus unedoI first became acquainted with this small evergreen tree or shrub when I was studying the gardens of ancient Pompeii (Italy) and saw it depicted in the wall paintings. The ancient naturalist Pliny the Elder is said to have given the species name ‘unedo’ to it from the Latin unum edo,”I eat [only] one,” indicating that the yellow or red fruit is bland. Centuries later the German painter Hieronymus Bosh included the fruits of the tree in his triptych ‘The Garden of Delights’. After 2000 years, the tree is still popular especially in Southern California where the climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean where the plant is indigenous. But this plant is also found in Ireland and is known as the Irish or Killarney strawberry tree.

Type: Broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree.

Outstanding Feature: White flowers and yellow or red strawberry-like fruits in fall; cinnamon-red new bark revealed by exfoliating older bark.

Form: Vase.

Growth Rate: Slow.

Bloom: Small white bell-shaped flowers borne in panicles in fall.

Size: 16-33’ H x 16-33’ W

Light: Full sun to part shade except in dessert areas where it tolerates more shade.

Soil: Well drained, limey soil.

Water: Naturally adapted to dry summers; water moderately.

Hardiness: Zones 8-10.

Care: Low maintenance; drought tolerant when established but may need watering when newly planted.

Pests and Diseases: Susceptible to scales, thrips, anthracnose, phytophthora, root rot, and rust.

Propagation: Seeds (easy to germinate); semi-ripe cuttings in summer or autumn.

Comments: Likes a sheltered position; berries are enjoyed by birds and can be made into jams and liqueurs.

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