Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I spotted this tree in East Finchley cemetery last week and, although it is most definitely not a weed, I decided to indulge myself and find out a bit more about it. After all, it is native to Great Britain (albeit only in a tiny corner of south-western Ireland, where it seems to have survived the last ice age) and is a popular street tree – in ‘London’s Street Trees‘ Paul Wood points out that it can be found in Bermondsey, Haggerston, Vauxhall and Holloway, and that there is even an Arbutus Street in Dalston. The Irish connection gave it its alternate names of ‘Irish strawberry tree’ or ‘cane apple’ (from caithne, the Irish name for the tree). Elsewhere, it can be found around the Mediterranean and Western Europe.
The tree is not related in any way to the strawberry that we have for dessert: in fact, it’s a member of the heather family (Ericaceae), something that can be seen more clearly in the flowers than in the fruits. The tree bears both simultaenously, which makes for an attractive and long-lasting display.The fruits are edible, but, much like the avocados that I sometimes buy, they take twelve months to ripen and then spoil very quickly. The species name unedo means ‘I eat only one’, and is attributed to Pliny the Elder. Whether he meant that one was enough, or that one was so delicious that no more were required is open for debate. I now regret that, in the interests of citizen science, I didn’t try one. There were certainly enough of them about.
The fruit is can be used in a variety of ways: here is a rather attractive crumble cake, for example.
However, as is so often the case, the main use of the fruit turns out to be in the making of alcoholic beverages. In Portugal, the wild fruit is used to make Medronho a 48% proof brandy that is drunk at breakfast to ‘waken the spirits’. In Albania it’s used to make rakia (not to be confused with the aniseed flavoured raki) and can be up to 90% proof. All I can say is that these folk are made of much stronger stuff than me. One glass of prosecco and I’m dancing on the table.
For something slightly less alcoholic, here is a recipe for Irish Strawberry Liquer from the splendid Talk of Tomatoes blog.
The fruit can also be used to make jam, and here is a recipe from the Maremma region of Italy which sounds rather splendid.
What with its fruit and flowers and evergreen foliage, the strawberry tree is a great tree for a small garden, where every plant has to earn its keep. The flowers are pollinated by bees, birds like the fruit (even if we are wary of it) and it has a variety of ecosystem advantages: it can grow in very poor soil, and helps to stabilise it: it is salt-tolerant, and so useful for coastal gardens:it’s fire-resistant: and the thick leaf-cover helps to protect birds and insects during the winter.
Pliny did, however, note that it should not be kept close to bee-hives, for the nectar gives a bitter flavour to honey.
The strawberry tree forms part of the coat of arms of the Spanish city of Madrid, which shows a bear eating the fruits from the plant. There are still about 230 brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain, and I love to think of them stretching up to eat the berries. There is some indication that the bears may also eat the fermented fruit and collapse in an alcoholic stupor, much as they do in other places where such bounty is available.
In a complete digression, I remember seeing the paw prints of a sloth bear in a forest in India, and being amazed at how human they looked, just like the bare feet of a small child. These creatures resemble us in many ways.In Italy, the tree, with its red fruit, white flowers and green leaves (the colours of the Italian flag), was seen as a symbol of the unification of the country during the 19th Century.
Medicinally, the leaves of the strawberry tree have been used for a wide variety of purposes – they are said to be astringent, diuretic, urinary anti-septic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and have more recently been used in the therapy of hypertension and diabetes. The leaves certainly contain quercetin, which is an anti-oxidant, and are said to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Now, I have referred previously to Hieronymos Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and the way that folk can be seen to be wrestling with strawberries, carrying strawberries, and even eating strawberries. I took it for granted that the fruit in question was from the wild strawberry. However, the painting was recorded in the inventory of the Spanish monarch as ‘La Pintura del Madroño‘ – ‘the painting of the strawberry tree’. Have a look at those giant fruits and see what you think. I suspect that I was right the first time.
And finally to our poem. I am indebted to Greene Deane at the Eat the Weeds website for finding this Irish folk song on the subject of the Arbutus, or strawberry tree. Do pop over to the blog for fascinating information on all things foragable (this may be a new word). Like so many folk songs, it starts well enough, but gets rather less pleasant as we approach the end.
My Love’s An Arbutus
My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.
But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.
Alas, fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.
Photo One (Flowers) by By muffinn from Worcester, UK (Ameixial – strawberry tree Arbutus unedo flowers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (Cake) by By Nzfauna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39656416
Photo Three (coat of arms) by By Valadrem (http://valadrem.blogspot.com) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons