Biogallery

Get to know the Species

Strawberry Tree

A shrub or small tree typical of the Mediterranean region, the strawberry tree is much appreciated for its fruit, but it has also become valued for the ecological role it plays in the recovery of degraded ecosystems.

The strawberry tree (Arbutos unedo) is a shrub or small tree which usually grows up to five meters in height but can reach more than twice that size. Its leaves have a serrated edge, are dark green and shiny on the upper side, and are maintained throughout the year. The colour of this persistent leaf contrasts with the tone of the fruit, the arbutus, which turns yellow, orange and bright red as it ripens.

The round fruits have a rough surface and ripen in autumn, contrary to the cycle observed in most native species that grow in Portugal. One of the reasons for this lag is due to the long flowering period of the strawberry tree: the flowers, of a greenish-white or pinkish tone, only appear when the fruits of the previous year are ripening, and remain until February. Thus, flowers and fruits coexist in autumn – so when the fruit is picked, care must be taken not to damage the flowers.

Each fruit has between 20 and 25 seeds which are tiny (two to four millimetres). Aided by the vegetation covering the soil, these seeds germinate easily so that the plant grows throughout the country, although it is more common in the South and in inland parts. In these areas of Portugal, the strawberry tree has a long tradition and its fruits are highly appreciated in the production of brandies and liqueurs.

In addition to the value of the fruit in these drinks and its industrial use (food and cosmetics, for example), the wood and roots have also been used traditionally – the wood as fuel and the roots in charcoal production. The leaves and bark are rich in tannins and can also be used for tanning hides.

More recently, this pioneer species has seen its ecological value grow, which is due, in particular, to its resilience to fire and rapid regeneration capacity. This makes it an ally in the recovery of degraded ecosystems. With regard to this ecological aspect, it should also be noted that the strawberry tree is an important source of food for pollinators during autumn and winter, when there is less availability of flowers (food).

Despite being a species with a conservation status of Least Concern (according to the IUCN Red List), the strawberry tree is part of two habitats protected by the Habitats Directive, which are included in the Sector Plan of the Natura 2000 Network: it is the dominant species in subtype 5330 pt3 “Arbutus groves – Tall thickets dominated by Arbutus unedo” and codominant in several subtypes of the priority natural habitat 5230 “Arborescent thickets of Laurus nobilis”. It is still a frequent species in the shrub layer of habitat 9330 “Quercus suberforests”.

Did you know that…

  • The scientific name Arbutus means shrub, which is the normal size of this plant. However, under certain conditions, it can grow to more than double this size, up to 12 meters tall. Unedo means to eat (edo) just one (unus), an idea that comes from the belief that very ripe fruits are intoxicating.
  • The common name by which it is known in English – strawberry tree – is due to the similarity between arbutus berries and strawberries (Fragaria spp.). However, they are unrelated plants. The strawberry tree is a member of the Ericaceae family, as are blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), crowberries (Corema album), azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.). The strawberry belongs to the Rosaceae family, the same family as, for example, roses and peach trees (Prunus persica).
  • A team of Portuguese researchers dedicated themselves to the chemical characterisation of the strawberry tree in 2014 and concluded that it is rich in omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids, recognised as key in the control of cholesterol, skin health, bones and cognitive functions. They also highlighted its antioxidant activity which is superior to that of other fruits (which helps to prevent the formation of free radicals responsible for oxidative stress that, in excess, damages the body). For this reason, the team recommends that this berry is eaten raw, in addition to its application in food products.
  • Strawberry Tree

    Arbutus unedo

  • PLANT

  • Genus:

    Arbutus

  • Family:

    Ericaceae

  • Conservation status:

    Least concern, according to the IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature – Red List.

  • Habitats:

    Mixed and pre-forest, slopes and ravines, agroforestry and forest areas with cork oak, holm oak, maritime pine or eucalyptus, sometimes being the dominant species, forming arbutus groves. It generally thrives in any type of soil.

  • Distribution:

    Mediterranean Region, Western Europe (France and Ireland) and Macaronesia. In Portugal, it is common throughout the country but more frequent in the south, in the Monchique and Caldeirão mountains.

  • Height / length:

    Up to 12 m.

  • Longevity:

    Shrub or small tree, up to 400 years.

How do we take care of the strawberry tree?

The strawberry tree can be found in several properties of The Navigator Company, especially in the South, such as in Águas Alves (Monchique), where the species grows spontaneously and where you can find it integrated into the habitat 5330 “Pre-Desert Thermo-Mediterranean Forests”.

In the Herdade da Caniceira (Tramagal) and Quinta de São Francisco (Aveiro) there are also arbutus trees, both planted. In Caniceira, for example, there are about eight hectares growing with the aim of producing fruit. At Quinta de São Francisco, the plantation is old and there are even hundred-year-old specimens, which are protected by limiting mechanised interventions.

Navigator’s conservation measures are aimed in particular at patches and cores of strawberry trees of considerable size and in habitats protected by the Natura 2000 Network. In properties where these arbutus groves are identified, areas of interest for conservation have been established. These benefit from special measures, from those aimed at fire protection to manual or motor-manual interventions (limitations on the movement of machines) to support natural regeneration or, if necessary, further planting.

In some of the properties, arbutus berry harvesting helps to preserve traditions and support the surrounding communities, which are dedicated to the production of arbutus brandy and other drinks that include it in their recipes, such as Melosa and Limosa from the Algarve.

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