Lee Valley & Veritas Gardening
Lee Valley 35 Years  
  Volume 8, Issue 7 - July 2013    
Strawberry Tree: Love It or Hate It
  Strawberry tree in bloom
  A strawberry tree in bloom
My newly acquired house on the west coast of Canada had a mature garden with a towering, fully grown strawberry tree (Arbutus menziesii). While touring my soon-to-be home and garden, the real-estate agent commented that having this rare tree in the garden is a bonus that I should be grateful for. A careful look at this unexpected "bonus" revealed a crooked trunk covered with large strips of peeling bark. It looked as if the tree had been attacked by a mysterious, bark-hungry pest. Several upright, twisted branches formed an irregular, dull-green crown. Its tropical look made me wonder if a strawberry tree really belonged in this climatic zone (Canadian zone 8). Needless to say, I was far from impressed.

About the Strawberry Tree
The tree is so called because of its bright-red, berry-like fruit. Other common names include madrone, Pacific madrone, bearberry and arbutus. The Pacific madrone has an extended family consisting of 13 species. The most closely related include the Arizona madrone (A. arizonica), Texas madrone (A. xalapensis) and Mexican strawberry tree (A. glandulosa). More distantly related species are widespread throughout southern Europe and Asia, with the most common being the Mediterranean strawberry tree (A. unedo).

In the forest, Pacific madrones can grow into large, noble trees. The majority reach anywhere from 16m to 25m tall and have trunk thicknesses of almost 3m (similar to oak trees). In fact, the largest specimen found in California was said to be 32m tall and was estimated to be about 600 years old. Somehow arbutus never grows straight, but instead spreads up to 16m, with artful twists and curves that are quite graceful.

The arbutus is certainly treated as an iconic tree where I live. Streets, parks, subdivisions, shopping centers and other city infrastructure are commonly named after it. There are a number of reasons for its popularity. First, it is the only native broadleaf evergreen tree in Canada. Second, the growth of Pacific arbutus is restricted to a narrow band along the Pacific coast occurring within 8km of the ocean. It is often found growing on exposed rocky shores and forest edges overlooking the water. The trees contribute to cliff and bluff stability, as the roots go deep into cracks in the bedrock.
Dwarf Mediterranean strawberry tree
The blooms and fruit of the dwarf Mediterranean strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo 'Compacta').
Unfortunately, the number of strawberry trees is slowly declining. One possible cause is effective fire control. The Pacific arbutus depends on intermittent naturally occurring fires to reduce the conifer (mainly fir) competition. A mature tree usually survives a fire and can regenerate itself relatively quickly to repair any damage. Additionally, a large number of seeds sprout following a fire. Further contributing to its decline is increasing development in areas that are native habitats for the tree. Finally, the tree is known for its extreme sensitivity to changes in grade or drainage near the root crown.
  Peeling bark
  The tree's peeling bark gives a dramatic effect.
Ornamental Features
The most striking feature of the tree is its rich orange-red, papery bark that peels away from the mature wood to reveal the trunk's silvery-green appearance.

This extraordinary feature is not specific to the arbutus tree only. Other bark peelers include the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with its cinnamon-colored peeling bark, birchbark cherry (Prunus serrula), famous for its mahogany-red inner bark, and common ninebark shrub (Physocarpus opulifolius), named for its distinctive reddish-brown bark that peels to reveal lighter inner wood.

The exposed inner wood of the strawberry tree has a satin sheen and feels amazingly smooth and sometimes cool to the touch.
Nectar-filled blooms
A cluster of the strawberry tree's nectar-filled blooms
In the late spring, Pacific arbutus bears nectar-filled flowers that have a fragrant honey scent. The white, urn-shaped blossoms resemble blueberry flowers and appear in drooping, branched clusters at the shoot tip. An additional spring bonus is the buzz of hummingbirds and bees attracted to the tree's dense bloom clusters. The beautiful blossoms are followed by masses of pea-sized berries, which, like the flowers, appear in many branched clusters. The fruits have an interesting rough surface and ripen slowly, turning from green to brilliant orange-red in late fall. Before December arrives, birds and squirrels strip the tree of berries in a few days. The animals compete for every single one, so they must be a real delicacy for them. I followed their example and found that the fruit tastes sour, with just a vague resemblance to strawberries.
  Foliage-covered branches
  The tree's branches remain green year-round.
The tree's oval-shaped leaves are thick, leathery and arranged spirally. The tops are glossy dark green but underneath are a lighter dull gray-green. Like all evergreens, arbutus has to exchange its foliage every so often. Unfortunately, arbutus leaves have only a two-year life expectancy. They turn orangey-brown and fall from June through August. A mature tree like mine can easily fill a dozen waste bags. Also, the bark peels year-round, so there is a good amount of mess to clean up, particularly through the summer months. One positive feature is that as old leaves die, new leaves grow so that the branches always remain green.

Arbutus loves full sun and poor but well-drained soil. It tolerates salt well but not stagnant air. The species is difficult to cultivate in the garden mainly because of the extensive irrigation and fertilization necessary. Additionally, the transplant mortality of older trees is high, so it's better to start with a small seedling. These, however, are painstakingly slow to grow. The newest addition to my garden is the dwarf Mediterranean strawberry tree (A. undeo 'Compactus'), which is a truly amazing plant. During its reproduction cycle, masses of white flowers appear in November and last usually until mid-February. Moreover, the blooms are accompanied by the colorful ripening fruit from a previous season. As a result, the tree provides a long-lasting, cheerful display in mid-winter.

Most people admire the beautiful arbutus, although they are not usually those who have it in their gardens. This is mainly because of the excessive bark and leaf litter it produces. Aside from its messy summer habit, however, the tree is virtually maintenance free. Over time, I have learned a lot about my strawberry tree, and the more I learn, the more I like it. Despite my negative first impression, I'm now an arbutus admirer.

Text and photos by Gina Dobrodzicka

Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturalist who volunteered with Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton for five years. Currently, she volunteers with the Vancouver Master Gardeners Chapter, the South Surrey Garden Club and Darts Hill Garden Society. She recently re-established her landscaping company. Her website is www.gdgardendesign.com.
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