Thursday, January 3, 2013

The strawberry tree - an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

The strawberry tree is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean region which is conspicuously absent from the Maltese countryside. 

It belongs to the family Ericaceae in which we also find the Mediterranean heath which is known in Maltese as erika. A couple of years ago saplings imported from Sicily were planted at the Forest 2000 on the slope north of the G─žadira Nature Reserve and recently I was surprised to find it growing in the grounds of the University of Malta in Tal-Qroqq. The single tree was in flower and had lots of fruit.

It can grow up to 10 m high and has dark green leaves. In winter it produces white bell-shaped flowes which give rise to a strawberry-like fruit. 

The fruit is yellow until it matures and becomes red. The fruit takes a whole year to mature and it is normal to find flowers as well as immature and mature fruit in the same tree. 

The flowers are pollinated by bees whilst birds love the fruit. In some countries the fruit is collected to make jams and liqueurs. In some parts of the Mediterranean including Corsica and Italy the fruit is distilled to make an alcoholic drink. In Portugal it is used to make medronho which is a kind of strong brandy. The coat of arms of Madrid consists of a bear eating the fruit from a strawberry tree.

The leaves are used medicinally as an astringent and antiseptic. Its antiseptic action within the urinary tract was considered as a useful remedy for treating cystitis and urethritis. It has also been used to treat diarrhea and dysentery.

The wood is used for turning and is often for firewood and for the production of charcoal. This has led to its demise in many parts were it used to grow and this might explain its absence from the Maltese islands.

This article was published in The Times on 28.01.09

No comments:

Post a Comment