The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a shrub that produces round, brightly colored fruits that are not strawberries but are bland tasting. These trees also feature delicate, fragrant flowers.
The strawberry tree fruit itself has flavors that are similar to that of guavas and apricots with subtle woody undertones.
The oblong leaves of this tree are shiny and dark, measuring 2 to 4 inches long. In the fall, from October to December. the tree produces bell-shaped white or pink flowers that grow in clusters and mature alongside the fruit.
All of this is brought together by the lovely multicolored bark and twisted branches, which together make for a lovely ornamental tree that, when left to grow as a shrub or small tree, can eventually take the form of a lush, dense dome.
Over time, the trees develop a charming, slightly twisted appearance, with lush, dark green, leathery, red-stemmed leaves and dark, reddish-brown, flaking, and shreddy bark.
The fruits are edible, but they are typically not pleasant when they are fresh. They can also be used to create the Portuguese liqueur medronho, as well as jams and jellies.
Expect this shrub to grow at a slow to moderate rate and plant new trees in the fall. It’s one of the most attractive small trees that are available for residential use, but it’s unfortunately not normally available in the east.
As a master gardener, in this article, I’ll walk you through exactly how to care for this evergreen shrub.
Botanical Name: Arbutus unedo
Common Name: Strawberry tree, Killarney strawberry tree, Irish strawberry tree, cane apples, Dalmatian strawberry, arbutus
Plant Type: Evergreen shrub
Hardiness Zones: 4 – 9 (USDA)
Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type: Well-draining, sandy or loamy soil
Soil pH: Acidic to slightly alkaline
Maturity: 3-5 years
Height: 8-12 ft
Bloom Time: Late autumn to winter
Flower Color: White or pinkish bell-shaped flowers
Native Area: Mediterranean region (Western Europe, North Africa)
Strawberry Tree Plant Care
Cultivating strawberry trees is an art as much as it is a science. You must understand the nuances of your tree’s needs and adjust as necessary. Below is a breakdown of the essential aspects of strawberry tree care.
When it comes to caring for your strawberry tree, there are several key factors to consider. Understanding the importance of light, soil, water, temperature, humidity, and fertilizer will help you create the optimal conditions for your tree to thrive.
Light plays an indispensable role in the life of a strawberry tree. Just like us humans who thrive in sunlight, most strawberry tree varieties need full sun to maximize their growth potential.
Ensure your chosen planting location receives at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily for optimal growth. The increased light encourages flower bloom, which in turn, leads to bountiful fruit production.
In addition to direct sunlight, it is important to consider the intensity and duration of light. Strawberry trees benefit from bright, consistent light throughout the day. Avoid areas with excessive shade or areas that are prone to long periods of darkness.
Strawberry trees prefer well-draining, acidic soil. Your strawberry tree will not do well in soggy conditions; over-watering and poor drainage can lead to root rot. Therefore, make sure your soil’s pH is slightly acidic, around 6.0-6.5, for your tree to flourish optimally.
Consider getting a pH kit from your local garden center to accurately determine your soil’s pH level. If your soil is not acidic enough, consider adding iron sulfate or sulfur to decrease the pH level.
In addition to pH levels, it is important to consider the quality of your soil. Strawberry trees thrive in soil that is rich in organic matter. Adding compost or well-rotted manure can improve soil fertility and provide essential nutrients for your tree.
When it comes to watering your strawberry trees, consistency is key. Regular, deep watering sessions encourage dense and resilient root systems. However, avoid soaking the soil. Instead, aim to maintain moist, well-drained areas for this evergreen shrub.
During hot summers, water your trees more frequently, as top soil can dry out rapidly. Conversely, during colder times or periods of heavy rain, cut back on your watering frequency to avoid over-saturating your tree’s roots.
It is important to note that strawberry trees have a moderate tolerance for drought once established and grown in well-drained clay. While they require regular watering, they can withstand short periods of water scarcity. However, prolonged drought can stress the tree and impact fruit production.
Temperature and Humidity
Strawberry trees are generally hardy and can handle a range of climates. However, they favor mild temperatures and aren’t suited to extreme heat or frost. Ideal Strawberry growing temperatures range between 20-30°C (70-85°F).
Although they can handle some humidity, ensure adequate air circulation to prevent disease outbreak. If humidity levels are consistently high in your region, consider using a substrate that absorbs excess moisture.
It is important to monitor the temperature and humidity levels in your growing area. Extreme temperatures and high humidity can stress the tree and affect fruit quality. Consider using shade cloth or other methods to protect your tree from excessive heat or cold.
Fertilizer can play a big role in boosting growth and fruit production in strawberry trees. A balanced fertilizer with an even nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus ratio can be applied in the spring when vigorous growth begins.
Alternately, using an organic compost can provide a slow-release nutrient source, benefitting your tree over a longer period. Always follow the product directions or consult with a local horticulturist before adding any fertilizers.
In addition to regular fertilization, it is important to monitor the nutrient levels in your soil. Conducting soil tests can help you determine if any specific nutrients are lacking and adjust your fertilizer application accordingly.
Remember, caring for your strawberry tree is an ongoing process. Regular observation, proper maintenance, and timely adjustments will ensure the health and productivity of your tree for years to come.
Harvesting from Strawberry Tree
In the late fall or early winter, usually in November or December, the strawberries on a strawberry tree are ready for picking. The berries should be picked when their skins are intensely red and slightly soft to the touch.
How to Plant Strawberry Tree
Planting your very own tree entails a feeling of satisfaction that is rarely found in pre-purchased, store-bought fruit trees. The process of nurturing a seedling and watching it grow into a mature tree is a rewarding experience that connects us to nature and the cycle of life.
Let’s dive into the step-by-step process of planting strawberry trees:
1. Stratify the Seeds
To ensure successful germination, it is recommended to stratify the strawberry tree seeds. This process mimics the natural cycle of the seeds being exposed to the winter cold before sprouting in spring.
To stratify the seeds, place them in a plastic bag and seal it tightly. Then, place the bag in the freezer for two weeks. This cold treatment will break the seed’s dormancy and prepare them for germination.
2. Select the Right Planting Site
Once the seeds have undergone stratification, it’s time to choose the perfect spot for your strawberry tree. These trees prefer well-draining soil and thrive in areas with full sun or partial shade. Consider the mature size of the tree and ensure that it will have enough space to grow and spread its branches.
3. Prepare the Soil
Before planting, prepare the soil by removing any weeds or debris. Strawberry trees prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5. If your soil is too alkaline, you can amend it with organic matter such as compost or peat moss to lower the pH.
4. Plant the Seeds
Once the soil is prepared, it’s time to plant the strawberry tree seeds. Dig a small hole, approximately 1 inch deep, and place the seeds inside. Cover them with soil and gently pat it down to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Water the area thoroughly to provide the seeds with the moisture they need to germinate.
5. Nurture the Seedlings
As the days go by, keep a close eye on your strawberry tree seedlings. Ensure that the soil remains moist but not waterlogged. Overwatering can lead to root rot, so it’s important to strike the right balance. Once the seedlings emerge and develop their first true leaves, it’s time to give them a little extra care.
If you started your strawberry tree seeds in small pots, you will eventually need to transplant them into larger containers or directly into your outdoor planting site. Choose a sunny spot with well-draining soil and enough space for the tree to grow. Gently remove the seedlings from their pots, being careful not to damage the delicate roots, and place them in the new location. Water thoroughly after transplanting to help the seedlings establish themselves in their new home.
By following these steps, you are well on your way to successfully planting your very own strawberry tree. Remember, patience and care are key when it comes to nurturing young seedlings. As your tree grows, it will reward you with its beauty, shade, and delicious fruits. So go ahead, embrace the joy of planting and watch as your strawberry tree flourishes in the years to come!
Types of Strawberry Trees
Here are some of the most popular varieties of strawberry trees and some key characteristics:
- ‘Compacta’: This variety will give you a dwarf strawberry tree. It’s a popular variety because it only grows about 8 to 12 feet high, which makes it an ideal one for growing in pots on a patio.
- ‘Rubra’: This strawberry tree variety is known for its deep pink flowers.
- ‘Elfin King’: Choose the dwarf cultivar known as “Elfin King” if you do not want to deal with picking up a lot of fallen fruit. Naturally, the trade-off is that it produces fewer ornamental fruits.
- ‘Oktoberfest’: This is another great dwarf strawberry tree that is an ideal container plant.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases for Strawberry Tree
Strawberry trees, with their vibrant red fruits and evergreen foliage, are a beloved addition to any garden. While they are generally resilient, these beautiful trees are not immune to a few pests and diseases.
One common pest that can wreak havoc on strawberry trees is birds. These feathered creatures, with their keen eyes and nimble beaks, are quick to snatch up the tree’s delicious fruits. As you admire the beauty of your strawberry tree, keep a watchful eye for any signs of bird activity. Consider using bird netting or other protective measures to prevent these winged thieves from enjoying the fruits before you do.
Another pest that can cause damage to strawberry trees is slugs. These slimy creatures are particularly fond of the tree’s juicy fruits and tender leaves. To keep your strawberry tree safe from slugs, regularly inspect the foliage and surrounding areas for any signs of their presence. If you spot any slugs, you can use slug traps or other organic methods to control their population and protect your tree.
In addition to birds and slugs, rodents can also pose a threat to your strawberry tree. Squirrels, mice, and other small mammals are known to enjoy the tree’s fruits just as much as we do. These clever creatures can quickly find their way to the tree, leaving you with fewer fruits to enjoy. To deter rodents from feasting on your strawberry tree, consider using barriers or repellents that are safe for both the tree and the environment.
While pests can be a nuisance, diseases can also affect the health of strawberry trees. One common disease is root rot, which is caused by excessive moisture in the soil. When the soil becomes waterlogged, it creates the perfect environment for fungi to thrive, leading to root rot. To prevent this disease, ensure that your strawberry tree is planted in well-draining soil and avoid over-watering. Regularly check the soil moisture levels and adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
Another disease that can affect strawberry trees is Phytophthora. This fungal pathogen can cause root and crown rot, leading to stunted growth and wilting foliage. Phytophthora thrives in poorly drained soil and can spread quickly if left unchecked.
To protect your strawberry tree from this disease, it is crucial to maintain proper drainage and avoid waterlogged conditions. Additionally, practicing good garden hygiene by removing any infected plant material can help prevent the spread of Phytophthora.
Caring for a strawberry tree is not only about tending to its needs but also about fostering a deeper connection with nature. As you embark on your journey to nurture and grow these beautiful trees, you become a part of the circle of life in your garden. The sweet rewards of your efforts will not only fill your heart but also your garden with the abundance of strawberry trees.
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Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.