The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a pretty special tree in Britain and Ireland. It's thought that it is the only tree to have remained here through the ice age, where it was able to survive in part of south-west Ireland which is now submerged, and was relatively mild at the time. This is interesting, when you consider that its favoured climate seems to be that found around the Mediterranean! For this reason, some hold the view that it is more likely to have migrated here after the last ice age ended. Even today it is found more often in the south of the UK, and more often in south-west Ireland.
The fruit of the tree is one of the main points of interest. They look vaguely like strawberries, hence the common name, but more like lychees. About an inch across, they are round, orange-red and pimpled. Although they are edible, they aren't considered much of a delicacy. The species name unedo derives from Latin meaning 'eat only one'. They do have some culinary uses, though. They can be used to make jam, and in Portugal, where the tree is common, there is a potent alcoholic drink made from them, known as 'aguardente de Medronho'.
There is a saying here that if you can drink Medronho, you can drink anything! Lots of people (especially in the Monchique mountains of the Algarve where most of the wild strawberry bushes are) make their own versions in a still in the shed at the bottom of the garden so recipes do vary. The stuff you get in shops is different to the home-made stuff that most of the cafés and smaller pubs sell. The home-made stuff is about 100% proof and this gets served to tourists whenever they do a 'day in the country' or 'jeep safari' type of organised excursion where you get to meet the locals. It has an extremely strong, fiery and bitter taste which is mainly overshadowed by the immediate 'burn' on the way down. The taste comes afterwards. The nearest thing I can liken it to is a strong, home-made grappa in Italy.
- Experience of a Researcher living in Portugal.
Other animals seem to like the fruit more than humans, however. Birds are fond of it, and help to propagate the trees by spreading the seeds around. The Madrid coat of arms shows a bear reaching out to pluck the fruit from the tree.
Arbutus unedo has an unusual feature that makes it particularly attractive. The fruit take a whole year to ripen. This means that it is fruiting and in flower at the same time, as one year's fruit is becoming ripe as the next year's flowers emerge. The tree is also evergreen, so the leaves provide a bit of colour all year too.
The strawberry tree normally grows to around eight metres in height and spread, but the availability of smaller cultivated varieties (eg, 'Elfin King') means you can enjoy them in gardens, and not just the rocky slopes of Portugal!