The strawberry tree is a fruit tree native to the Mediterranean basin, cherished in our farming tradition. It’s a wild species, typical of Mediterranean scrub vegetation, but it can be easily cultivated in orchards. Due to its distinctive flowering and fruiting characteristics, the strawberry tree holds significant ornamental value. It is highly appreciated for its mixed and vibrant colors. Moreover, it has a great capacity for rooting and spontaneous reproduction, making it perfect for reforesting areas affected by wildfires. The fruits are called strawberries or albatross berries. They can be consumed both fresh and processed for long-term preservation.
The strawberry tree and its fruits have numerous health benefits, long employed in herbal medicine. In this article, let’s explore these properties and unveil the secrets of this splendid tree.
Botanical Identification, Origin of the Name, and Distribution of the Strawberry Tree
The strawberry tree, scientifically named Arbutus unedo, is an evergreen tree belonging to the botanical family Ericaceae.
The scientific nomenclature has Latin derivations, where arbutus means bitter shrub, and unedo means “I eat one”. The latter term was attributed by Pliny the Elder, who did not appreciate the taste of the fruits. Considering them not very tasty, he did not want to eat more than one. Other regional dialect names for the strawberry tree include: lellarone, marine cherry, or alabaster. The Greeks called it kòmaros. From this term, for example, comes Mount Conero, part of the Umbria-Marche Apennines. The literal translation of this name is “mountain of strawberry trees”. Indeed, this species is widespread in the wooded areas overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The spontaneous presence of the strawberry tree ranges from sea level to 800 m in altitude, with a preference for coastal areas. The leading global producers are the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where there are real strawberry tree forests. In Italy, the tree is mainly present in the southern regions, due to the milder climate, but it is also found in the central and northern regions, where it can be successfully cultivated.
Botanical Characteristics of the Strawberry Tree
The strawberry tree is a tree characterized by rapid growth and great longevity (it can survive for several centuries). In its wild state, it is often found as a bushy shrub, full of suckers, not exceeding 2 meters in height. If cultivated and trained as a tree, it can reach considerable dimensions, both in height (up to 8 meters) and in trunk volume. The trunk is very robust, sinuous in shape, and highly branched. It can develop with several main branches originating from the ground, or with a short main trunk that branches out later. The bark of the trunk and main branches is rough and fissured. The color is reddish-brown, and over time, it peels into thin elongated flakes. The crown is very dense and roundish but irregular at the same time.
The leaves of the strawberry tree are thick and tough, leathery. They are alternate on the branches, with a short petiole, lanceolate blade, and serrated leaf margin. The color is green, dark and shiny on the upper side, light and dull on the lower side.
Flowers and Fruits
The most characteristic aspects of the strawberry tree are its flowering and fruiting. On the same plant, in autumn-winter, one can find newly born and very fragrant flowers alongside fully ripe fruits. The strawberry tree has prolonged flowering, starting in autumn and lasting for much of winter. From the flowers, fruits are generated, maturing in the following autumn. Hence, the great ornamental value of the strawberry tree, which, when other trees are bare, provides splendid colors. Due to its coloring, it is also called the “Italian tree” In the past, it was used to beautify areas with monuments to fallen soldiers.
The flowers of the strawberry tree are hermaphroditic and appear at the terminal part of the branches. They are grouped in small pendulous racemes of cream-white or pink color. Each inflorescence consists of a variable number of small flowers (from 5 to 35). The shape of the tiny flower is unmistakable, characterized by a tubular corolla, narrowed at the edge and swollen in the middle like a wineskin, ending with five small teeth turned outward. The fruits, strawberries, are round berries about 2 cm in diameter. They are fleshy, with a characteristic granular and tuberculated surface. The color is initially yellowish, then orange, and dark red when fully ripe.
Strawberry Tree Honey
The flowering of the strawberry tree is highly favored by bees and other pollinating insects. The flowers have abundant nectar, similar to those of the Japanese medlar. Strawberry tree flowering produces excellent monofloral honey with the following characteristics:
- Quick crystallization
- Amber color when in a liquid state; from hazelnut to brown, with gray-green tones when solid
- Very intense and pungent aroma
- Initially sweet taste, then bitter
Cultivation of the Strawberry Tree
Cultivating the strawberry tree in the orchard can be highly rewarding, both for its ornamental value and abundant fruit production. It is a rather robust species that does not require extensive cultivation care. Concerning climate, it prefers a mild one, typical of coastal areas, especially during its particular flowering and fruit-setting period. It is a plant that resists frost well, even at temperatures below freezing. However, for lush growth and good fruiting, it needs a mild climate. The best exposure is full sun but sheltered from winds to facilitate bee pollination.
Reproduction and Planting
The reproduction of the strawberry tree can occur by seed or cutting, as well as by layering or offshoot. Seed reproduction is done at the end of winter, while cutting prefers autumn. Young plants should be grown in a pot for about 2 years before being transplanted into the open ground. The cutting must be sheltered and protected during colder periods. Whether by cutting or seed, a mix of sand, soil, and peat kept consistently moist is needed.
You can also choose to buy mature plants grown in a nursery. In this case, for bare-root plants, the best planting times are autumn and late winter. If the plant is in a pot, with the soil ball, it is advisable to wait until the beginning of spring. For further information, we recommend reading our in-depth guide on how to plant a fruit tree. As mentioned, the strawberry tree is very long-lived and develops a dense crown. Therefore, it should not be positioned too close to other trees. We recommend maintaining a distance of at least 5 m.
Soil, Irrigation, and Fertilization
Among the various types of agricultural soil, the strawberry tree prefers sub-acidic ones and detests calcareous soils. To achieve a more acidic soil at planting time, it is advisable to amend the planting soil with peat for acid-loving plants and mature manure. This ensures an ideal environment for the young plants’ first years of growth. Irrigation is only necessary in the first year, especially if the tree was planted in spring. Ensure that the soil remains consistently moist in summer by watering regularly, at least once a week. Once mature, the plants no longer need assistance with water. To improve soil moisture, you can also use natural mulching. This will also help keep the cultivation area free from weeds. Finally, fertilization is essential but should not be excessive. Once a year, preferably in the fall-winter period, it is sufficient to amend around the strawberry tree with home compost or earthworm humus.
Pruning the strawberry tree
Pruning interventions on the strawberry tree are primarily for maintenance and therefore quite limited. Cuts should be aimed at containing the canopy and aerating it, eliminating dry or weather-damaged parts. To give the tree a neater appearance, formation pruning is important, shaping the training form. Plants purchased in pots are usually already set as small trees or bushes. If you decide to grow the strawberry tree as a tree, periodic removal of basal shoots is crucial. The strawberry tree is a plant with strong sucker activity and can easily become wild.
Adversities and pests
The strawberry tree is a very hardy cultivar, not particularly susceptible to attacks by pests. One danger may be posed by black aphids in spring. However, this insect is easily controlled with natural macerates (garlic and nettle) and Marseille soap. Another problematic insect for this species is the scale insect, which generally prefers trees with tough leaves. To combat it, the use of fern macerate is recommended for prevention. In the case of an ongoing attack, allowed in organic farming are white oils such as permitted white oils.
Properties and uses of the strawberry tree
The strawberry tree encompasses numerous properties, making it an excellent plant not only ornamental but also utilitarian. Firstly, its wood is excellent for heating and carpentry. The bark is rich in tannins, used for natural dye production and leather tanning. The leaves are rich in active principles such as arbutin (or arbutoside). This substance belongs to the group of hydroquinone glucosides. When ingested, it is processed by intestinal flora, transforming into a substance with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory action (hydroquinone). Fresh leaves are also used to prepare infusions, decoctions, and herbal teas. These serve both as diuretics and for treating cystitis, urethritis, prostatitis, inflammations of the stomach, intestines, and hepatobiliary tract. Strawberry tree honey is excellent for naturally treating oral cavity affections.
The fruits are the edible part and contain up to 400 mg of vitamin C and many polyphenols with antioxidant properties. They can be consumed fresh, but in moderation, as excessive consumption can cause a sense of intoxication or mild stomach pains. In the tradition of various Italian regions, strawberries are mostly transformed for long-term preservation. It is an excellent fruit for making preserves, jams, for soaking in spirits with grappa, or candying. Strawberries are also used to flavor liqueurs or make alcoholic beverages, such as the Ligurian “vinetta”. In short, an ancient fruit with multiple uses and a Mediterranean flavor.