Arbutus unedo ‘compacta’ has no strawberries and is more shrub than tree, nevertheless, the strawberry tree is a versatile evergreen shrub. With glossy green leaves, similar to a laurel, flowers, fruit and a textured cinnamon-colored bark , this plant looks good year round. Usually. If it’s not too cold. It used to be okay, but lately…. It is rated to live in zones 7-10, but is often not tolerant of frosty weather. Native to southern Europe it can be semi-evergreen during our recent winters. Location is key. When established and in full sun it seems to thrive. Other spots that are more exposed might provide trouble for this plant. However, this is a plant that is well worth the risk because of it’s unique features. How welcome it is to have a plant that flowers well into the fall. From October to December the strawberry tree produces cascades of creamy-colored urn shaped flowers. I saw a hummingbird feeding from one just this week. This plant provides a valuable food resource for these tiny birds during the autumn, when flowers are dwindling. If your garden is filled with flowers for the hummingbirds to feed on every month, they just might stick around and call your yard their home January through December. The fruits are quite distinctive. Bright and bumpy, red and roly-poly, they look like candy, hanging like little upside down lollipops, turning from green to yellow to red as they mature. The fruit is quite edible, but most describe it as bland or bitter, letting the birds enjoy another treat from this shrub. Cedar waxwings, varied thrushes, robins and starlings have all been noted to feed on the fruit.
Unlike most other plants, the flowers and fruit of the strawberry tree occur at the same time….amazing! The variety compacta reaches 6-8 feet tall 5-6 feet wide and and is a multi-trunked shrub which can be pruned into a hedge. It can also be shaped or formed into a single-trunked small tree. This Arbutus is a relative of another Arbutus, our native Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) which has the distinctive orange-red peeling bark. Try a strawberry tree in the garden and you’ll make lots of feathered friends.