The Strawberry Tree might sound like a Shel Silverstein book, but it is an actual tree that is currently in fruit on the West Coast. There are a couple of plants that are called by this common name. The plant I am referring to is the Pacific Madrone or Arbutus menziesii.
Arbutus can have either single or multiple trunks, and grow anywhere from 6-100 ft tall depending upon the variety. It is an evergreen with green leaves that are a bit tough or leathery and a rough red/brown trunk with peeling bark. If you have limited space, be sure to choose a compact variety like Arbutus unedo 'Compacta'.
For me, the most exciting aspects of this tree are the clumps of small bell shaped flowers and the bright red fruits that somewhat resemble a round strawberry. The flowers emerge in October and are reminiscent of Pieris...some varieties have all white flowers, others have pink. In November, fruits emerge, starting out as a greenish yellow, moving to a vivid yellow, then a gorgeous sunset orange and finally a vibrant red.
The spherical fruits are covered with a knobby texture. They appear to be very tough, but when ripe are actually very soft. Once you slice past the deep red exterior, a beautiful pineapple yellow center is revealed. Unfortunately, the fruit is rather bland and grainy...I suspect not many people eat it raw.
However, the high sugar content makes this fruit suitable for jams, jellies and sauces. Oh, and did I mention liquor? In Portugal, the fruit is distilled and used to make a brandy called medronho.
The Strawberry Tree is hardy in zones 7-11 and can be grown in part shade to full sun. Once established, it doesn't need much supplemental water and requires little care. Keep in mind that this plant does not like to be transplanted, so site it carefully...and only prune for appearance.
I love this shrubby tree, in part because the berries are so irresistibly beautiful. But I also love it because it is functional and serves as a good privacy hedge with interest. Seriously, if I have to see one more photinia I might cash it in...do the world a favor and give the Arbutus a try instead.