Meet the Wild Strawberry Tree

Today the weather was a very frosty 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so I was surprised to find that the fruits of an Arbutus unedo shrub were still soft and apparently unaffected by the freeze. Arbutus has round berries of an unusual texture: the skin is rough rather than smooth, and the pulp inside is mushy but not juicy. Nature got creative with the color here too — it looks red at first but when you look more closely you’ll see there’s also bright yellow showing through in the background. The berries taste mildly sweet, pleasant, and similar to the Kousa dogwood fruit, except that Arbutus is more fun to eat because it doesn’t have any pits inside.

The strawberry tree is native to North America, western Europe and the Mediterranean. I assume it takes the colloquial name for its visual resemblance to cultivated strawberries, but don’t let that fool you: it isn’t related. Actually, Arbutus is part of the blueberry family and is botanically close to kinnikinnick, an herb widely used in the Pacific Northwest for smoking and as a tincture for urinary tract infections.

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24 thoughts on “Meet the Wild Strawberry Tree

  1. I know this is an older post, but wanted to put in some extra info. We’re in Portland and yesterday I found two fabulous and huge Arbutus unedo outside one of the emergency entrances to Portland Adventist Hospital (on the “Market Street” entrance side) – not far from Mall 205. There are TONS of fruits all the trees and coming down right now. So excited to find a winter fruit! And the trees are absolutely beautiful! Collected several pounds worth of fruit, but didn’t even scratch the surface of how much is available.

  2. That is definitely arbutus ueno. I plant them on a lot of jobs. There is cultivar called “Marino” which is a cross between a strawberry tree and a madrone which can grow to about 25 feet talk. The regular strawberry trees grow to 10 feet. Madrone is in the ericacea family as well but it is very different. Madrone berries are much smaller.

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  4. My dad and I had a arbutus unedo vs. Myrica rubra identification argument in San Diego. Eventually he realized I was right with the arbutus identification. While we were looking up evidence, your blog was one of the first items we saw.

  5. Interesting read, hope I can find some here in PA. Anything that tastes like kousa dogwood, but doesn’t have seeds would be real nice. Also glad to see the link to kinnikinnick. I was just reading Native American Ethnobotany tonight and saw it referenced, but wasn’t sure what it was.

    • Nathan,
      Thanks for the comment. Kinnikinnick is a common landscape plant outside of office buildings and apartment complexes. I don’t think I have done a post on it. I will add it to the list.

  6. I dont think those are Arbutus, or madrone trees. I encountered this fruit often while travelling in china, and it’s so delicious! But, I am pretty sure it is what western marketing has recently been calling “yum berries.” The latin name is Myrica ruba. I am fairly certain that it is not a madrone at all, though…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myrica_rubra

    • Phoenix,

      Thanks for weighing in. It’s interesting to learn that there is another species called the strawberry tree that looks so similar to Arbutus. After looking at Myrica rubra, I still think, however, that this one is probably Arbutus. One reason is because the berries come in yellow in the Arbutus, but I don’t see that in the Myrica. The other reason is I think the shape of the tree/shrub looks a bit different. But I’d like to investigate this further — next time I see the shrub at the park I will have a close look at the leaves, as the berries are now out of season. In any case I do appreciate your insights!

      Becky

      • The bark of the Madrone is easily distinguishable. It would be hard to misidentify for anyone familiar with it, as I’m sure Rebecca is. The fruit and leaves of Myrica rubra are strikingly similar to the Madrone.

      • Hmmm… interesting!

        I would be curious to see that tree. Is it in portland? Im in portland! Would you mind sharing what park it is in? Just wondering!

        Having spent a lot of time in southern oregon and northern california, I am also pretty farmiliar with the madrone tree – at least one of them! Arbutus menziesii, or the Pacific madrone. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_menziesii. I know that one has very distinct, peeling bark.

        However, are you thinking this one might be Arbutus unedo? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbutus_unedo That one seems to have less distinct bar, though Ive never seen it before.

        As for the colors, I have definitely seen myrica ruba in yellow before.

        Just trying to figure this out…! I have wondered before about different variants of this plant that look similar!

      • Yes, I am thinking it is Arbutus unedo — not the Madrone with the peeling bark. Hmm, if the berries come in yellow, then it is possible it is the Myrica ruba. Tell us what you think! The tree/shrub in question borders Killingsworth in Alberta Park, around NE 20th Ave. It’s near a little foot path cutting in from the sidewalk, closer to the southwest corner than the southeast corner. It might be hard to spot and ID right now without the berries, but why not give it a shot?

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  8. Really happy to have found your blog via Rowdy Kittens! Looking forward to reading it.

    We have these trees everywhere in Australia. However, my Mum has some bad stories about these Strawberry Trees from her younger years. Apparently eating too many can make you ill and she ended up being hospitalised. However, I can’t really find anything about this on the internet. Have you heard this at all?

    • Hi Jess,

      Thanks so much for reading First Ways! I love Rowdy Kitten, and Tammy, and am psyched that she interviewed me. I saw your blog just now and I wish you luck getting your manuscript published!

      I have never heard/read a story about someone being sickened from eating too many Arbutus berries before, but then again I also don’t know too many people who would have had the opportunity to eat too many, either. That said, I have heard similar stories about other wild foods, but generally these are things someone ate a whole lot of. I get the impression that eating too much of any one kind of wild food can potentially cause stomach discomfort — I’ve heard about it with day lily flowers and everlasting pea flowers, for instance. Wild foods often have stronger active chemicals than farmed foods and our domesticated bodies aren’t used to processing all that.

  9. Agreed that the picture looks like Arbutus unedo, a common street tree in the Pacific Northwest, but non-native to this region.
    The only native Madrone or Arbutus species in this region is
    A. menziesii; although I do believe there are about 3-4 more Arbutus species native to southern US and Mexico.

  10. I think we have some Arbutus menziesii on my street. I’m going to go have a look — but I don’t think I saw fruit on it.

  11. I wasn’t aware that the common Madrone tree produced good fruit. Thanks for the heads up. It’ll be on my list of things to try.

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