I was surprised and excited to bump into a row of newly planted Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) in a Southwark street recently. As a child with an interest in native trees, I was fascinated to read about this mysterious tree with a compelling name in my botanical guidebooks. It was described as very rare and hanging on in Ireland where it had survived the last ice age.
They line Melior Street, a short turning in the shadow of the looming Shard, that monument to megalomania that marks the redevelopment of London Bridge station.
Southwark appears to have an experimental approach to street tree planting which I admire: I have never seen the Strawberry Tree planted in London streets before (although this species and other Arbutes are a common feature of San Francisco sidewalks). Earlier in the year I came across a Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in the same borough, and I am now on the lookout for more unlikely foliage that may be lurking in the neighbourhood.
While the Persian Silk Tree is an exotic import with undeniably alien looks, the Strawberry Tree is a native of more familiar landscapes. It is found in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic fringe from Portugal to, famously, south west Ireland where it is common in parts of County Kerry. It may hail from less far afield, but it was never a component of the post-glacial Bermondsey forest and consequently the Strawberry Tree’s evergreen foliage and drupe-like berries provide unexpected lushness to its adoptive environment.
Characterised by bushy growth in the wild, Southwark’s trees have been trained or grafted to produce 2 metres of straight trunk before this characteristic is allowed free rein. The English name arises from the appearance of the round pitted fruits, but they are actually part of the Ericaceae family and therefore related to the heaths which becomes apparent in the white bell-shaped flowers. A lovely feature of this Arbutus is the simultaneous flowering and fruiting in the autumn, the fruits take twelve months to ripen and go through every conceivable shade between lime green and vermillion. At this time of year, the trees sport a jaunty array of ripe red fruits interspersed with citrus coloured baubles and bunches of white flowers. Gorgeous.
Here’s the view down Melior Street from Google streetview showing the newly planted Strawberry trees:
Map of native and non-native records for Arbutus unedo in Britain and Ireland on the Biological Records Centre website
Description of the magnificent and elderly Strawberry Tree in Waterlow Park, Highgate
Wikipedia entry for Killarney National Park where native Irish Arbutus unedo is found (needs some editing!)
My Flickr photoset including Arbutus unedo