Alys Fowler: strawberry tree

Strawberry tree: ‘I do like a decorated tree, which is why I grow Arbutus unedo.’ Photograph: Alamy

I don’t like Christmas trees. There, I’ve said it. I don’t like the act of cutting a tree for a week or so, I dislike even more the pretence that, because it’s in a pot and will spend the rest of the year starved and thirsty, this is OK. I am not all bah humbug, though. I do like a decorated tree, which is why I grow Arbutus unedo: by Christmas, it is often crowned in red baubles.

A. unedo is known as the strawberry tree because its bright red round fruits resemble, from a distance, strawberries. The fruit appear a year after the flowers are pollinated; thus it is often possible to have both fruit and flowers out for Christmas, against a background of glossy, dark green leaves. It tops anything I’ve seen in a sitting room.

Unedo comes from the Latin unum edo – “I eat one only”. Some believe this means that Pliny, who named it, was saying you need to try it only once, because it’s revolting; others believe it should be interpreted as, “It’s so good, one is plenty”.

The outside of the fruit is gritty and inside are numerous seeds, but find a perfectly ripe one and the orange inner flesh will smell deliciously tropical, with a taste like lychee and a hint of kiwi. Do not be swayed by colour: often the best-tasting fruits are not particularly red. They start a sort of pale yellow, go orange and redden with age.

Once the fruit has dropped but before it rots, it turns alcoholic. If you consume enough, the inevitable happens (along with a strange stomach ache). The Portuguese create a brandy from it. The instructions I’ve found are delightfully loose: “Add fruit to firewater.”

The tiny flowers are pinkish-white and bell-shaped, much like heather, and appear from October until Christmas. They are rich in nectar for this time of year and are often visited by buff-tailed bumblebees, Bombus terrestris, and on particularly warm days, local honeybees. The more bees, the more fruit a year later, so it’s good for all concerned. Pollination is often sparse, but in a good year you can make a delicious jam.

Bees aside, this is a wonderful tree for an urban setting: pollution-tolerant, hardy, happy in sun or part shade and unfussy as to the soil it sits in. It doesn’t even mind clay, though in early years it is bothered by harsh northerly winds. It can grow up to 8m, but most trees in urban settings don’t get quite that big. It has a rounded habit and dense, evergreen branches, so is perfect for screening unsightly views and muting sound. It can be pruned around April into a rounded bush, or remove lower branches for a standard shape.