Strawberry Tree Curse

by Green Deane

in Alcohol, Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Jam/Jelly, Plants, Trees/Shrubs

Strawberry Tree Koumaria

Strawberry Tree, Koumaria, Koumara, Pacific Madrone, Madrona

Any plant called “strawberry” other than a strawberry is doomed. Strawberries pack a lot of particular flavor and sweetness. Most other things called strawberry do not.

The Strawberry Guava doesn’t. The Indian Strawberry doesn’t. The Strawberry Tree doesn’t, and its sibling, the other Strawberry Tree doesn’t either. These four fruits have their own flavor and appeal that gets lost in the pronouncement that they are not as good as the strawberry. And that is accurate. None of them are as extroverted as the strawberry, but they are not strawberries. You have to get past that.

Like the rest, the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo,  is doomed in English, as Arbutus mensiesii related Strawberry Tree. In Greek the former is called Koumaria (koo-mar-ree-AH) which is also the name of a town and a heck  of a lot of hotels. The perfectly round fruit of the tree, a favorite of children, is called Koumara (no i.) Goats love the leaves, as do deer. But best of all, Koumara are Koumara, and they’re good unto themselves. A. unedo takes a year to put on fruit and ripen so it is loosing fruit just about the time it is flowering again. Called madronos in Spanish, Corbezzolo in Italian, and sometimes Bearberry in English as well as the Apple of Cain and Cain Apple. The fruit smells like anise but doesn’t taste like that, more along the lines of a woody strawberry, or a cross between guava and nectarine However, unripe it can cause nausea, on the other hand it can ferment on the branch and cause mild intoxication. From a health point of view it does have Vitamin C. The bark has tannins for working leather or as a dye.

A. mensiesii aka A. menziesii

The second Strawberry Tree is A. mensiesii, also called the Pacific Madrone, or Madrona. Native to northwestern North America, it can be found cultivate in non-hot areas of the country. Every Septamber I get several emails from folks wondering if the fruit is edible because there are Internet reports that it is toxic. It is not. Most folks think it is some kind of dogwood, but it is not. It’s berries are edible but astringent. The Indians made them into cider or just chewed them. A more distant relative, the Mayflower, or the Trailing Arbutus, is also an edible. See a separate entry for that.

Arbutus (arb-YEW-tus) means struggle.  Unedo (YOU-nee-doe)  means “I eat only one” from the Latin unum edo. That can be read two ways: It is so good I only eat one, or it is rather it is uninteresting thus I only eat one. We got that in 50 AD from Pliny the Elder (23 AD – August 25, 79), and we don’t know which he meant. Mensiesii honors the discoverer, Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a Scottish physician and naturalist.

The Arbutuses are in the heath family. Oddly, A. unedo also grows in Ireland where in Gaelic it is called Caithne. Some think it is a pre-ice age hold over. In might have been introduced by the Beaker People around 4,000 BC according to pollen found in bogs.  Incidentally, there is an old Irish folk song “My Love’s An Arbrutus.” The words are by the recipes below.

Koumaria in blossom

Several species in the genus Arbutus are ornamentals. A. andrachne (the Eastern Strawberry Tree) has small non-edible berries and cinnamon-colored bark. It is often confused with a hybrid, A. andrachnoides , which has small, hard non-edible fruit and perfectly smooth bark ranging from deep red to bright yellow. Fruit of the Arbutus marina, however, is edible.

When I travel back to the “old country” the two things I notice about plants is how many familiar ones there are. Weeds are cosmopolitan. Then there are the natives. Edible figs grow wild in southern Greece, as does the deadly Oleander but also thyme, basil, savory, rosemary, oregano and marjoram. In Crete the fruit of the Koumaria is made into a local distillation called Koumaro. Having visited Crete many times I think the Cretans can make tail pipe-kicking radiator fluid out of nearly anything.

 

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

 

IDENTIFICATION: The Strawberry Tree, grows to 15 to 35 feet tall, evergreen leaves are dark green, glossy, two to four inches long, up to an inch wide with a serrated edge.Young leaves have red veins.  Blossoms are white (occasionally pale pink), bell-shaped, like a blueberry blossom, honey scented. Fruit is a red berry to 3/4 of an inch through,  rough surface, maturing 12 months. In southern US the tree is about 10 feet tall. Older specimens have gnarled trunk and branches. Many cultivars including “Compacta, Rubra, Elifn King, Quercifolia, Croomei, Melita, and Werner.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruit usually ripens in later summer or fall. Mealy, amber flesh. Tree blooms autumn into winter

ENVIRONMENT: Native to rocky well-drained soil, full sun except in deserts where it needs partial shade

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Out of hand, jams, jellies, pies, candied fruit, wine and spirits. See recipes below.

 Strawberry Tree Jam

Two pounds of fruit

A pound of sugar

Four ounces orange liquor

Slowly boil the fruit with a little water until soft. Press through a mill then reheat with the sugar and liqueur. Simmer until a drop mounds on a chilled dish.

Option: Add some cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla for added flavor.

Strawberry Tree Jelly

Arbutus berries, sugar, water.

Rinse fruits. Put them in a preserving pan and cover with cold water almost completely. . Bring on the heat and cook for about fifteen minutes over low heat. Pass the fruit through a cheesecloth, pressing well to catch any juice.

Weigh it.  Mix the juice with its weight of sugar.  Simmer over low heat, skimming rather soft at times. Cooking is complete when the juice forms small beads. Cool before placing in jars.

My Love’s An Arbutus

My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ali December 1, 2012 at 02:52

love the article

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2 thad March 21, 2013 at 14:12

they are planted as landscape trees all over sacramento,ca. and people are amazed they are edible like I was when I found this page,been looking for the plants name for a year,i should have known it would have been on your web site green dean you are very good at what you do, you help a lot of people by showing them the greatest gift of all food.you should be put up for a noble peace prize…thank you for all you do,god bless

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3 Kathryn February 19, 2014 at 23:58

Where in sacramento do you see them often? I’d like to see one up close!

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4 Bryan August 14, 2014 at 10:41

These trees line the southwest corner of SMUDs campus along S street…some are rather big specimens. They are also all throughout Elk Grove, but particularly along the median of Franklin Blvd. between Mack and Bighorn. A relatively small tree, they are used at the ends of the medians near turnouts.

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5 Andrew October 24, 2014 at 19:09

I’m in the Sacramento area and just happened on this website when looking for a use for these fruit after learning about them in a botany class. I live in Folsom, and they can be seen all over here. There are several of these trees on the Folsom Lake College campus as well as in the parking lot for the medical offices across the street from the school.

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6 thad March 21, 2013 at 14:27

do the leaves make a good tea?they plant them all over for the pretty berries that come out around christmas time and the pretty bark, should be called the christmas tree because of when the berries come out…i tell people about your website all the time and your system for making sure they have the right plant…they all get happy

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7 Green Deane March 24, 2013 at 18:55

As far as I know only the berries are usable.

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8 sue kahler May 2, 2013 at 19:34

How fast do they grow?

We need shade FAST on the west side of our house in Lincoln, CA (5 miles north of Sacrament and V rocky). I don’t have too many years left….

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9 John May 6, 2014 at 19:51

Strawberry tree is slow growing. For fast growth in your climate try Chitalpa Tashkentensis, White Cloud. Very fast growing hybrid of the Desert willow and Catalpa trees. Has many flowers all summer to boot. Mine gives light shade rather than dense shade.

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10 Green Deane May 6, 2014 at 20:13

The Strawberry Tree produces edible fruit. That is why it is on this site. As far as I known the Chitalpa tashkentensis does not produce anything edible.

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11 Nibornm November 24, 2013 at 15:11

I found your website in order to provide answers to my parents about my habit of enjoying the fruit of the Arbutus tree. I wanted to compliment you on the really excellent webpage containing a blend of instructional information and artistic beauty (the poem). Thank you for your efforts.

I thought my Arbutus was a Marina, so I will have to research if such a tree also carries the strawberry-like fruit.

Happy Thanksgiving 2013

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12 Karen January 28, 2014 at 23:15

Could Arbutus unedo or any of the other varieties grow in eastern Nebraska?

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13 Green Deane January 29, 2014 at 17:09

It is hardy to zone 7.

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14 Abbie March 25, 2014 at 16:18

Thank you Green Deane for sharing your knowledge. There are publications from Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and Chicago that find the antioxidant level of to be very high in the fruits and leaves. There is plenty of folklore and scientific data showing profound antidiabetic, antihyperintensive, and antimicrobial properties. The leaves have more flavonoids compared to the fruits. I was wondering if anyone here consumes Arbutus unedo strictly for its health benefits? Also, this plant is closely related to Erica multiflora which is known for promoting hair growth in the form of an herbal extract. I wish I could grow this wonderful plant in my zone 5 location and may give it a try anyway.

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15 Nina Larisch-Haider April 9, 2014 at 04:27

Hi, I live in New Zealand and my neighbor has a big strawberry tree.
I wondered about the fruits, which are starting to get red.

I am so happy to found out, that I can eat the fruits …. and even make a jam. Thanks for your information. I will pass it to others.

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16 Val April 9, 2014 at 21:42

There are tons of them in So CA, San Diego county, also in shrubs. People think I am crazy when I eat them, they are delicious. Finally I can tell them what it is!! Looking for a long time for the name. Also, there are a lot of Natal plums for decorative purposes, I learned you can eat them, they are yummy. Don’t confuse with Oleandro thou – those are bitter, don’t have double thorns and very poisonous.

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17 amari May 21, 2014 at 12:46

oh my god you are sooo right! I was really confused when this website said that the berries don’t do have a particularly “good” taste; every time I’ve had the berries they taste absolutely amazing! If a strawberry, an orange, and a mango had a threesome and the outcome were a sweet baby… THIS berry would be that baby. Its happiness on your tongue! They’re all over UC San Diego campus, which is where i tried them.

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18 Green Deane May 21, 2014 at 12:55

Taste can be quite subjective and varies a lot from person to person.

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19 Patricia Thompson May 4, 2014 at 02:17

Thank you for the arbutus jam recipes. I live in New Zealand and my garden is ankle deeo in fallen strawberry fruit right now. A friend makes wine from tbe fruit but jam appeals more. Our native tui birds also gorge themselves on the rotting fruit and then career drunkenly round the garden.

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20 Cedar May 10, 2014 at 22:45

Please, what is the recipe for this jam? I have got the tree in my garden and the birds seem to like the fruit though it seems pretty tasteless to my palate, but I would like to try making jam with it, perhaps a bit of lemon juice would spice it up.

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21 Jenny September 26, 2014 at 15:13

Thanks for this strawberry tree profile. I have several in my backyard – the Pacific Madrone type.

I also have a new puppy who quite loves to eat the berries. Do you know anything about their safety for dogs? I’m trying to keep her out of them, but she makes a beeline for the ground under the tree any time she can.

Thanks for any further info.

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22 Carole November 15, 2014 at 23:05

I have 3 of these trees in my backyard. My dogs used to get one or two berries every once in awhile when they were puppies and almost always vomited them later. Now they don’t even bother with them.

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23 Colleen Rode October 22, 2014 at 15:19

I can guarantee that Pliny the Elder called it unedo due to its uninteresting flavour. Many times I have tasted the Arbutus berries where they grow abundantly on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and I have never reached for a second berry. The plain taste does not justify it!

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24 Helena October 30, 2014 at 14:23

Great article, I planted 8 large multi-branched Marinas in full sun some years ago East bay of San Fran and have grown to love the ripe berries just off the trees but not all have fruited yet. Would love to know what nutrients they contain? Hope the trees don’t get too tall. Trees around here seem to have some brown leaves along with the green ones but look otherwise healthy. Wonder if that is just normal? Thanks.

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25 Carole November 15, 2014 at 23:11

I’ve got some of these trees in my backyard and every once in awhile I’ll try one that looks particularly ripe and red… the flavor is very good — guava, peach-like — mild… and just when you think “wow these are sort of nice,” then you get the grittiness of the seeds (?) which may be why the unedo “only one” meaning applies… but this article has enticed me to try them cooked, maybe the jam… they are ripe now and starting to fall from the tree so perfect timing… thanks!

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26 deb November 23, 2014 at 11:50

I just wanted to remind everyone to be careful where you eat your fruit. My particular Strawberry Tree is susceptible to aphids and whiteflies. Several in my neighborhood have succumbed to them. I treat mine with a systemic and that would make the berries not safe to eat. So if the Strawberry tree is not yours in your yard please be careful. Hugs! deb

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