Autumn-flowering arbutus is true native
ONE of the prettiest native trees, arbutus is not widely grown in gardens, even in the milder areas of the country. Strangely for a native plant, most of which are well adapted to the Irish climate, arbutus is not all that hardy.
It is also found on the Iberian Peninsula.
Young plants can be killed by frost before they become properly established. The thickness of the bark is greater on older trees, and this seems to be a factor for survival.
The tree is seen growing wild in parts of Kerry and Cork, making a smallish tree, usually a bit lanky as it gets pushed upwards by competing vegetation. In gardens, it tends to make a much neater, more rounded bushy small tree. It spends its first decade or more as a broad bush, well furnished with leafy branches to the ground.
It has evergreen foliage, narrowly oval, and the bush looks very well now when the leaves fall from other trees and the green of arbutus makes a great contrast. The native Arbutus unedo is known as the Killarney strawberry tree because of the round strawberry-like fruits carried at the same time as the flowers. The fruits are edible, but not really palatable, and the name 'unedo', is considered to mean 'eat-once'.
The tree is not related to true strawberries but the fruits have a similar shape and colour. The berries develop for a full year from flowers made the previous autumn and early winter.
The tree has been flowering since September and will continue for a while more, making small white flowers in drooping clusters. The flowers are about pea-size and cowbell shape, typical of heather family plants.
Unlike most heather family plants, arbutus can grow on limey soil as well as acid. It likes well-drained but moist, humusy soil and it occurs naturally at woodland edges, in clearings and in rocky scrubby areas. It thrives in most garden soils, growing vigorously and beginning to flower and fruit in about eight or 10 years.
This native tree is a parent of the hybrid Arbutus x andrachnoides, the other parent being the Greek or Cyprus arbutus. The Greek arbutus is much bigger than the native species, and so is its hybrid. It makes a very handsome tree to about eight metres.
Unlike the shaggy peeling bark of the native arbutus, the hybrid has smoother reddish brown bark that peels to reveal a fresh dark orange-red colour. It flowers right through winter and does not make fruit. It is tougher than either of its parents but is not much planted, except in some old gardens. Either kind could be planted now from a pot, and well worth a try.