Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strawberry Tree Fruit: Betcha Can't Even Eat Just One

There is no such thing as a banana tree. (Bananas are the fruit of a tree-sized flowering herbaceous plant.) Pineapples don't grow on trees, either (they, too, spring from herbaceous plants). So you would be right to raise an eyebrow and look all cartoony-skeptical at the mention of a strawberry tree.

Yes, Virginia, there is a strawberry tree, though it does not grow strawberries nor is it always grown as a tree. (Discuss amongst yourselves.) Ours has been growing in our garden for about 15 years. It's about 10 feet high or so, with multiple stems springing from its base. There are so many reasons to like this plant that I feel a powerful urge coming over me to make a bulleted list:

1. It's evergreen. An admirable trait--it's nice to see more than sticks in the yard in winter. Also it provides a buffer year round between my yard and the neighbor's so that we both have a bit of a privacy screen.

What's not to like about a shrub that grows pompoms?
2. Not only is it evergreen, but it also flowers and fruits between October and January. The flowers are pretty inconsequential--little white bell-shaped blossoms, sweet but unremarkable--but the fruits! They're ridiculous--absolutely Seussian in their color and shape: egglike, bumpy berries that are bright yellow at first and ripen into candy-red.

They appear at the same time as the flowers because it takes them a year to grow and ripen--so a winter tree bears the fruit of last year's flowers as well as the start of next year's crop.

3. Sadly, the berries are a bland, mealy mouthful, so though they're edible, they're certainly not palatable (though in some cultures they're used to make wine and jam). Even our Labrador knows that (after having suffered the aftereffects of gobbling up a bucketload of fallen fruit in the past...she hasn't touched one since). But they're stunning when capped with snow, so they're definitely a feast for the eyes.

4. It happily grows in our Pacific Northwest climate. It likes cool, damp weather and withstands dry summers and drought, making it the perfect tree for our area. The strawberry tree is native to Mediterranean regions and parts of western Europe, particularly Ireland, which has a climate much like ours, so no wonder it feels at home here.

5. Another reason it may feel at home is that one of its cousins is a signature native tree here and is also sometimes called the strawberry tree. This branch of the family tree is the Pacific madrone, which also grows round, warty red berries and is best known for its red, peeling bark. The relationship shows up in their scientific names: the "Irish strawberry tree" is Arbutus unedo, the Pacific madrone is Arbutus menzeissii.

6. The latter binomial honors an 18th-century naturalist named Archibald Menzies. The strawberry tree's binomial has a more interesting origin: unedo is believed to derive from a Latin phrase meaning "I eat only one." I like to imagine some ancient toga-clad person eagerly popping a strawberry-tree berry into his or her mouth, only to stop chewing and suddenly look rather alarmed upon discovering that the fruits, unlike Lay's potato chips, will never support the slogan "betcha can't eat just one."


  1. I ate about three fourths of one. It's a bit like a Gooseberry with crunchy skin.

  2. Hmm! I have never tasted a gooseberry either--so clearly I will have to try one myself this winter...though the verdict that you could only make it 3/4 of the way through one does not bode well!!

  3. I just found them, and took the risk of biting into the fruit without knowing what it was. I disagree regarding the taste. My experience with it was that the the interior was semi-sweet, dense, pasty, and plummy tasting. The fact that it's seedless, and entirely edible, is a nice plus.

  4. Interesting! Bet it varies by individual tree too. Some may taste nicer.

  5. Does the tree have a common, common name? I have one outside my office and have always just called it a crunchberry tree. Telling people that if you dry them out they become crunchberries.

    1. Ha ha! I like that idea of calling it a crunchberry tree. I've only heard them referred to as strawberry trees...haven't seen any other common name, which doesn't mean that there isn't one. If I learn of one, I'll post it.