The Teddington Gardener

Strawberry Tree

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Arbutus unedo – the Strawberry Tree

A slow growing, evergreen tree that deserves to be more popular here in the UK – it is already widely planted in the Continent, even used in street planting and is attractive on so many fronts.

Evergreen, of course, is always useful – a flowering tree ticks more boxes, particularly these pieris-like little bells. Fruit too we like, and these brightly coloured lychee/strawberry crosses are pendant beauties. Edible too, though their white flesh is a little bland and pappy. The maturing bark takes on a rough cinnamon colour and texture, a warm rich red. Another box ticked. It is slow growing and therefore you will be paying handsomely for larger specimens and will need patience for a larger canopy to develop but patience pays in this instance. Its eventual height is between 4-8 metres, but allow a long time to create a large specimen.

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From The Telegraph…

How to grow: Arbutus unedo

The fruits are beautifully spaced on this tree, writes Fred Whitsey

A garden tree hung with scarlet strawberries on a raw mid-winter’s day . . . no, it’s not part of a post-Christmas fantasy world, but a reality for anyone who cares to plant one. Arbutus unedo, commonly known as the strawberry tree, is an astonishing plant. It produces flowers in the autumn, but these do not give way to fruits until a year afterwards.

The flowers, each a tiny ivory pitcher, can be carried in vast numbers, but only a small proportion are fertilised. This means that the fruits, of moderate strawberry size, are beautifully spaced on the tree.

Another advantage of this plant is that it will grow anywhere. Its natural home is around the Mediterranean and the warm south-west of Ireland, but it is decidedly hardy. Its leaves are tough and leathery, polished on the upper surfaces. You never see them scorched by frost.

This is one of a small family of modestly-sized evergreen trees that can also be grown into rather bulky bushes. The star of the family, Arbutus menziesii, is of Californian origin. This one is not grown for its fruits – which are small and black – but for its exceedingly beautiful bark. It is tactile too: whoever sees it must stroke its silkiness.

Cream, red and the green of verdigris are all interwoven in this, the degree of colouration changing with the season. But, unlike the rest of its family, Arbutus menziesii is a difficult plant to grow. It refuses to establish. Twice I have succeeded with it, only to lose the trees when they had reached 10ft. Both died overnight.

However, the capricious menziesii has an invincible rival – the hybrid Arbutus andrachnoides, whose bark is the colour of much worn and polished mahogany. Again, it is grown for its arresting bark, but its crop of white flowers also justify its garden space.

Another seductive hybrid, ‘Marina’, has recently appeared in garden centres. Its bark is a mixture of pink, cream and green, and our own tree, only six or seven years old, is already 8ft high. Since infancy it has carried a huge display of pink flowers every spring. No matter that none will ever turn into strawberries.

Growing tips

Although arbutus trees will grow well in any soil, they establish most readily if given plenty of humus-forming refuse round the roots in the planting hole to hold moisture and promote an extensive fibrous root system.

Arbutus unedo can be allowed to grow into a big, rounded evergreen bush, curbed occasionally by cutting fruiting branches for indoor decoration. It will then grow densely and, if used in perimeter plantings, will help to form a baffle against noises-off.

Varieties grown only for the appeal of their bark are best trained into standard trees by selecting the strongest branch as a trunk and gradually removing other growths up to six feet when the head can be allowed to form.

If Arbutus unedo fails to set a crop due to its late flowering, try bashing it with a plastic garden rake – on the principle of the old country jingle: “A woman, a dog and a walnut tree the better you beat ’em the better they be”. The process simply distributes the pollen.

Good companions

Since Arbutus unedo gives its dual performance in autumn, it makes a good climbing frame for one of those less brash clematis. ‘Etoile Rose’, ‘Madame Jules Correvon’ and ‘Gravetye Beauty’ are good examples. Hybrids grown for their bark are best planted in the foreground of informal beds, or as specimen trees, backed by rich evergreen plantings.

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