The Strawberry-tree is regarded as native to Ireland but it is not a widespread species. In the wild, it is confined to County Kerry, west Cork and Sligo. It is a Mediterranean tree and it has long been a puzzle how it got to Ireland after the country became an island when the ice melted and sea level rose at the end of the last ice age.
Being of Mediterranean origin the trees could not have survived the last ice age. It seems reasonable to suggest that fruits could have been bird-sown but, if so, it doesn’t explain the species’ particular distribution pattern.
Some people know the Strawberry-tree by its Latin name Arbutus. Its full botanical name is Arbutus unedo, ‘unedo’ being the Latin for ‘eat only one’. The fruit of the tree is an orange-scarlet, attractive-looking berry somewhat reminiscent of a juicy strawberry. However, the fruit is bitter to taste so if you eat one out of curiosity you won’t eat a second one.
We have a small number of wild plants growing in the south and west of Ireland that are native to Portugal and Spain. They are collectively known as our ‘Lusitanian flora’, Lusitania being the ancient name the Romans used for the western Iberian peninsula. It is intriguing that many of them do not grow in Britain or western France, so how the unique assemblage happens to be found in Ireland is a long-standing mystery.
Genetic studies show that the Strawberry-trees in Kerry are similar to stock in northern Spain suggesting that they were imported. Pollen cores from bogs evidence that the trees have been growing in Kerry since at least 4,000 years ago. In a most interesting article in the current issue of the journal British & Irish Botany, Galway botanists Micheline Sheehy Skeffington and Nick Scott suggest that Strawberry-trees may have been brought to Ireland by Spanish miners.
One of the first known copper mines in north-west Europe was at Ross Island on Lough Leane in Co Kerry. Mining spread from there and the subsequent spread of Bronze Age copper mining activity in south-west Ireland appears to match the clustered distribution of Strawberry-trees in Kerry and west Cork suggesting that the trees may have been planted and cultivated for making wine and producing charcoal. The Strawberry-trees in Sligo are believed to be possibly ornamental estate trees.