Arbutus or the strawberry tree is a small evergreen tree, which in Ireland can grow to be a forest tree reaching heights of up to 15 metres. It has an unusual distribution, as it only grows naturally throughout the Mediterranean and certain parts of Ireland. Unlike many of our other native trees, which reached us via Great Britain, Arbutus is thought to have spread here over the land bridge from Brittany. Called the strawberry tree because of the distinct shape and colour of its fruit, this species is found mainly in Co. Kerry especially in the Killarney district where it forms a large part of the natural forest on the islands and shores of the lakes. It is also found in unshaded parts of Glengariff Wood, Co. Cork and around Lough Gill in Co. Sligo. Arbutus produces masses of white flowers in November and December. Since the fruit takes 12 months to ripen, the tree carries both mature fruit and flowers at the same time. The fruit itsef is edible, but as the Latin name unedo – ‘eat only once’ – implies, it is not very palatable.
The fruit ripens in late autumn and early winter, and will drop off only when ripe.
Seeds can be removed from the ripe fruits by careful maceration and the pulp washed away.
They must be kept moist, but not waterlogged, and unshaded.