Categories
Street Trees

Strawberry trees in Southwark

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.

Flowers and fruit of European Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)
Cream of the crop: Fruits and flowers of the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) in south London

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.

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) street tree, Bermondsey
Strawberry Daquiri: Arbutus unedo guides the thirsty into the Horseshoe Inn

Here’s the view down Melior Street from Google streetview showing the newly planted Strawberry trees:

Further reading:

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

Categories
Street Trees

Persian Silk in Globe Street

I was transfixed by the charms of a Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in Southwark today. A most majestic and unusual (for England) street tree, in fact a rarely-planted tree anywhere in the UK, street or otherwise. This is perhaps a cautious test planting to see what happens – the tree has a reputation for invasive behaviour in the US and Japan according to the trusty wikipedia entry

Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin)
Persian Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) in Globe Street, SE1

On first impressions Albizia julibrissin has a lot going for it – very attarctive and exotic foliage, a long flowering period and a lovely spreading habit, but I’m sure our forbears said the same about the Tree of Heaven.

Persian Silk Tree Albizia julibrissin foliage
Persian Silk Tree foliage and (look closely) flowers

It seems appropriate to plant this tree in Globe Street, an otherwise nondescript turning off Great Dover Street, but clearly a road with ambition. From a distance the tree’s profile screamed for attention and I couldn’t resist a closer look which was rewarded with the mimosa-like elegance of the foliage and jaunty flowers that are all stamen and no petal – there were a lot but they may not be visible in my pictures. The unexpectedness of this tree was compounded by the planted bed that surrounded it. A nice bit of Guerilla Gardening, an activity to be encouraged I believe – people claiming a stake in their streets and beautifying derelict land. It’s great to see the usually small-scale and unconstrained planting, not always appropriate but an antedote to the often institutional planting of local authorities. Unfettered middle class anarchy!

Looking down Globe Street from Great Dover Street: