Text by Cathy Ronk, UCCE Master Gardener Program
f you are shopping for a smaller, drought-tolerant tree, you might want to consider the strawberry tree, a charming evergreen with cinnamon-colored bark and dark green leaves.
The clusters of small, bell-shaped flowers and strawberry-like fruit attract hummingbirds, butterflies and birds.
The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) grows 8 to 35 feet tall and wide with a slow-to- moderate growth rate. It is used as a single or multitrunked ornamental tree and as a specimen or hedge shrub in gardens and public landscapes. When grown as a tree instead of a shrub, basal sprout or suckers are pruned off. Trunk and branches, with reddish brown, shed-ding bark, often become attractively gnarled with age. Dark green leaves with red stems are 2-3 inches long. Bunches of small white (rarely pale pink), bell-shaped flowers hang in abundance at the tip of the branches. Pollinated by bees, the round, 3/4-inch fruit matures yellow to red in 12 months and appears at the same time as the next flowering. The edible fruit is somewhat sweet but often bland and mealy.
Dwarf varieties, all narrower than tall, include: Elfin King (5 feet tall, flowers and fruits almost continuously), Oktoberfest (6-8 feet tall with deep pink flowers) and Compacta (10 feet tall).
Arbutus ‘Marina’ was introduced into the nursery trade in the mid-1980s as a hybrid with uncertain parentage. It is the easiest Arbutus to grow as a single-trunked tree. A slow to moderate grower, it matures at 20 to 40 feet tall and wide. The branches bear 4- to 5-inch- long dark green, leathery, serrated leaves that are bronze when they first emerge. Its attractive mahogany-colored bark exfoliates periodically. Clusters of pendulous, bell-shaped rosy pink flowers are produced in spring, appear sporadically through summer, and then a second heavy bloom occurs in fall. The fruit matures from yellow to red, and the fruit from last season remains on the tree as it produces this season’s flowers. The fruit is edible with gritty flesh and mild, kiwi-like flavor.
The Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS IV) rates Arbutus ‘Marina’ and Arbutus unedo as “low water use.” The WUCOLS project was initiated and funded by the Water Use Efficiency Office of the California Department of Water Resources.
Work was directed by the University of California Cooperative Extension. WUCOLS IV provides evaluations of the irrigation needs of more than 3,500 plant groups used in California land-scapes at ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS.
Strawberry trees tolerate the widest variety of soils and climates, but appreciate good drainage. Plant Arbutus in the fall or winter in sun or part shade. Some shade is definitely needed in the desert. Water thoroughly after planting and regularly through the first year. Deep watering encourages deep rooting. A 3-inch layer of organic mulch will help conserve water, but be sure to keep the mulch away from the tree trunk. Once the tree is established, allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Occasional pests are scales, thrips and aphids. Diseases include Phytophthora, root rot and other fungal diseases promoted by wet winters or poor drainage.
Prune in winter to remove dead or diseased wood. To produce an open-crowned tree, carefully thin to expose branches. Stake the standard tree for a couple of years because the crown can be heavy with thick, broad leaves.
Mass plant several multi-trunk Arbutus, leave unpruned, for an evergreen screen. Fertilizer is usually unnecessary.
Mix Madrone with other native plants, such as barberry, bush anemone, ceanothus, Dara’s Choice sage, coral bells, California goldenrod. Other companion plants include ‘Little John’ bottlebrush, salvias, gaura, rockrose, phlomis and santolina.
The strawberry tree is a small to medium-sized evergreen accent tree providing year-round interest in western gardens. The boughs from the strawberry tree make appealing centerpieces for fall and holiday tables, when the flowers and fruit are at their best. Holiday decorators harvest and string the fruit like popcorn and cranberries.
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