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Plant of the month – strawberry tree

Arbutus unedo (Strawberry tree)

At this time of year, it is not hard to see why this small shrub or tree has been considered a garden-worthy specimen tree in England since the 16th century.

In the morning light, the red berries of the strawberry tree glow and the small white bell-shaped flowers produce a very faint, sweet scent that give you an excuse to pause on the main lawn in front of the walled garden. This ornamental broadleaf evergreen is an attractive addition to a garden at any time of the year

The strawberry tree outside the walled garden

It is unusual for a plant to have flowers and fruits present at the same time; the reason for this is that the berries take a year to mature. The berries are edible and very high in antioxidants and vitamins, but you have to pick wisely as under-ripe berries can cause nausea.  If they are overly ripe, they can ferment on the tree and cause intoxication.  In Portugal, the fruits of the strawberry tree are used to make a strong brandy known as Aguardente de Medronhos.

The white flowers contrast beautifully against the red berries.

This tree gets its name from Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD23/24-79), who allegedly claimed that “unum tantum edo”. This means “I eat only one”, which has been interpreted as “I can only eat one because they taste strange” or “I only eat one because that is satisfactory”. Whatever the case, we recommend admiring with your eyes, and not your mouth, as this plant is particularly beautiful in late October!

Matt Weston, garden apprentice