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Typical essence of the Mediterranean scrub, the strawberry tree (arbutus unedo) is a nice looking bush, very interesting to cultivate for ornamental purposes but also with a productive intent, given that it produces abundant edible fruits, rich in nutritional properties.
It's about a evergreen plant with a pleasantly messy bearing, in autumn we find it full of flowers and fruits that give a touch of joy to the environment in which it is inserted. We can cultivate the strawberry tree as an isolated specimen in the garden, but also as a constituent of a mixed and not very thick hedge, or insert it within a real orchard.
The fruits that this plant produces are the strawberry trees, not very well known due to the not very sweet taste, not appreciated by everyone, but on the other hand a lot healthy for their properties nutritional. For this species with ancient and forgotten fruits such as the strawberry tree should be rediscovered and enhanced. Also because in order to promote plant biodiversity, it is important to include some species of European origin such as this one in our cultivation environments, which are well adaptable and rustic in the face of adversity.
Let's find out more about this species, and try to cultivate it inspired by the organic method, to which it lends itself very well.
Arbutus unedo: the plant
The strawberry tree is an evergreen shrub, belonging to the Ericaceae family, and its botanical name is Arbutus unedo. It is related to blueberry, azalea and rhododendron, just to name a few of its famous cousins. It is an ancient fruit, known since ancient Rome, even though it has never enjoyed great fame.
The strawberry tree has a very slow growth and rarely exceeds 3 meters in height in the spontaneous state, while the cultivated one, which receives careful attention, even reaches 8 meters. In any case it is very long-lived.
The flowering of the strawberry tree is very prolonged over time and overlaps with fruiting. The flowers have the shape of small jars, all grouped in inflorescences, white in color, and are pleasantly scented. The fruits are spherical berries, initially they have a yellowish green color, then turn red towards maturity. In autumn-winter we can find flowers and fruits at different stages of ripeness at the same time, so the plant takes on a very pleasant and pleasant appearance. Thanks to the contemporary presence of green, white and red colors, this beautiful plant is symbolically associated with our Tricolor.
The bark of the strawberry tree is reddish brown and with the growth of the plant it tends to flake off, it has a singular appearance. The wood is strong and heavy, which is excellent when used as firewood.
Where it can be grown
The strawberry tree is a Mediterranean shrub, native to our country where we can also find it spontaneous. Like all berries, wild strawberry tree fruits can only be harvested if you are sure of a correct identification, to avoid being confused with other inedible or even poisonous fruits. If instead we plant an strawberry tree in the garden, the problem does not arise.
Climate necessary for cultivation
The arbutus unedo plant is quite enough cold resistant, but if you plant in a harsh climate area, it is better to cover it in winter with non-woven fabric sheets, at least for the first 2 or 3 years after planting.
It can stay in the plains and the hills, while it generally suffers above 800-1000 meters of altitude.
Before planting this shrub we must remember that it is a sun-loving species, therefore it is important to ensure a sunny position. The strawberry tree it also suffers from cold winds, and in very exposed areas it is also necessary to evaluate the presence or absence of any windbreaks.
The ideal terrain
Contrary to what other species require, i.e. fertile and rich soils, the strawberry tree grows and produces discreetly even on lean and stony soils. However, it certainly avoids water stagnation, so it is essential to ensure the drainage of the soil by means of adequate processing and a good supply of organic substance, which also makes the soils soft, which tend to compact and form the characteristic cracks.
The other species of the Ericaceae family require acid soils and are intolerant to limestone, while the strawberry tree is more adaptable, although it is certainly the optimum for it too a soil with little limestone and slightly acid pH. If in doubt, it is advisable to prepare a soil analysis and, in the case of high pH, correct it with sulfur or at least put soil for acidophilic plants in the planting hole.
Planting an strawberry tree
To plant an strawberry tree we can starting with plants purchased in the nursery as in the case of the other more common fruit species, or reproduce on your own a plant by cutting, taking twigs from beautiful and healthy plants and putting them to root. With this method it certainly takes longer to have the plant ready, and it is worth doing it if we are particularly passionate about it and if we are not in any hurry.
The most suitable period for planting in mild climate areas is autumn, while spring is in the colder ones.
Once you have chosen the location, you have to dig a hole deep enough, so that the root system can develop without obstacles, in soft soil. The earth of the hole must receive a base fertilization based on compost or manure, in both cases well ripe, better if not thrown into the hole as they are but mixed first with the more superficial layers of the excavated earth, which ideally are to be restored on the surface.
How it is grown
After planting we need to take care of the seedling and properly manage the plant. Fortunately, in the case of the strawberry tree, not many precautions are required and even growing with natural methods is simple.
Young plants, in the first years after planting, need some irrigation, especially during the hot season and in the absence of rain. Then slowly the plant becomes stronger and deepens its root system, so we will be able to reduce irrigations, administering them regularly in hot periods and always avoiding the plant from going into water stress.
Even if the strawberry tree is satisfied with not very rich soils, a good amount of organic matter is still important for its growth and health. So in addition to the soil improver that is distributed at the time of transplantation, every spring we will have to think about replenishing the nourishment, distributing flour or pelleted manure, or even compost, throughout the area under the canopy.
After transplanting it is very useful to prepare a good mulch on the ground, that is to spread around the young stem a large circular layer of straw, hay, dry grass, about 10 cm high. Mulching prevents the spontaneous grass from germinating and competing with the plant for water and nutrients and also slows down the drying of the soil, allowing to reduce irrigation interventions.
The flowers of the strawberry tree are very willingly visited by bees, as they are rich in nectar and are present in the autumn period, when other blooms are lacking. In fact, there is also strawberry tree honey, with a less sweet taste than other much more known types, but still delicious and refined, suitable for some combinations such as pecorino, for example.
The strawberry tree anyway it is a self-fertile plant, production also takes place on isolated specimens, even if the presence of more plants can improve their quantity and quality.
Avoid plant diseases
Fortunately it is a rustic species, which we hardly find affected by any pathology. However, the strawberry tree is also worth involving preventive treatments which are administered to all plants, made with natural products such as those based on horsetail or propolis decoctions, which have a generic reinforcing effect on plants.
Strawberry trees can be affected by mealybugs, which are kept away in advance with fern macerates, or with propolis oleate, or are eradicated in a more energetic way with treatments based on white oil. In general, however, if you practice a lightening pruning of the foliage from time to time, which aerates and illuminates it, the scale insects are discouraged.
The aphids, other insects potentially harmful also for the strawberry tree, are prevented first of all by avoiding dealing with aggressive products that also kill their natural predators. We can ward off aphids by spraying extracts of nettle, hot pepper, garlic, or defeat them by doing treatments with soap, both the classic Marseille soap and the soft potassium soap, which can also be purchased for agricultural use in garden centers.
How to prune the strawberry tree
The prunings of the strawberry tree plant are limited, let's not forget that it is a very slow growing plant.
Towards the end of winter we can cut dry branches damaged by the cold, or make interventions simply aimed at keeping the shape of the plant in order and airing the foliage as a preventive form against fungal diseases and scale insects.
Grow strawberry tree in pots
We can also cultivate the strawberry tree in pots, knowing that the shrub will not reach great heights. However, we will have to put it in pots of at least 40 cm in height, to ensure that it has enough soil to develop a good root system.
The substrate must be well draining, so it is advisable to choose some soft soil mixed with the specific soil for acidophilic plants and a good soil conditioner basically.
Watering must be regular, especially in hot weather, considering that the potted plant does not have the autonomy of a plant in the ground.
The collection of fruits and leaves
The strawberry trees, also called albatrosses, even employ one year to reach maturity and they are round fruits with an indicative diameter of 2 or 3 cm, which we can find grouped in clusters on the plant.
They must be consumed at the right degree of ripeness, which is usually reached between November and December. If they are still unripe, in fact, they contain many tannins, and "lappano”To the taste, but they are equally unpleasant when they are too ripe.
Not being very common fruits it is difficult to find them in supermarkets, and for those who do not appreciate the sour taste it may be interesting to know that you can prepare excellent jams. In addition to jams, strawberry trees can also be transformed into alcohol and liqueurs.
But the leaves are also appreciated of the strawberry tree, especially the young ones collected in the summer, because they are rich in substances with antiseptic properties, astringent and purifying and we can use them for the preparation of herbal teas throughout the year, drying them and storing them in a dry place.
The fruits of the strawberry tree and the leaves have very appreciable beneficial properties, in particular due to the content of arbutin, very useful for the intestinal flora.