Common name: strawberry tree or Killarney strawberry tree.
Botanical name: Arbutus unedo, it is a member of the heather family, the Ericaceae, which can be told by the bell-shaped, small rounded flowers.
The strawberry tree starts to flower in early autumn and continues with a scattering of flowers right through winter. And the red strawberry-like fruits ripen during winter, a year after the flowers.
It seems strange behaviour to be flowering at such an unseasonal time of year and then to ripen fruit in winter. The reason is simple – this is a Mediterranean tree, one of a small group of Mediterranean plants that found their way to Ireland as the last Ice Age retreated north.
Called the Killarney strawberry tree, because it is widely seen in south Kerry, it is a large bush or small tree, capable, occasionally, of reaching to over 10m tall. It get its common name from the rounded orange-red fruits that resemble strawberries, but it is not related to the edible strawberry. The fruit is dry and insipid to taste. The tree makes a rounded shape as a young plant, eventually extending upwards in a cone shape. As an old tree, it often loses the lower limbs and has tall clear stems.
The flower bunches are carried on a short drooping stem, clear of the leaves and the fruits that develop dangle in the same way. The flowers are shaped like small cow-bells, usually white but sometimes pink, as in ‘Rubra’.
Flowers and fruits at the same time make for a very good decorative tree, along with the lovely evergreen foliage. It should be tried in reasonably mild gardens, always planted where the frost will flow down the slope away from the tree and on very free-draining ground.
The flower bunches are carried on a short drooping stem, clear of the leaves and the fruits that develop dangle in the same way
If the roots are waterlogged in wet soil in winter, the tree dies.
Unlike most members of the heather family, which need acidic soil, the strawberry tree can tolerate lime in the soil very well.
The Greek strawberry tree, Arbutus andrachne, is also a fine tree but even less hardy and generally only seen in tree collections. However, its hybrid, Arbutus andrachnoides crossed with the Killarney strawberry tree is more common and was planted quite a lot in gardens of the late 19th century. This is a bigger tree with beautiful peeling red bark, not stringy like its parent.
The foliage is good too and it flowers right through autumn and winter. Like its Killarney parent, it is tolerant of lime in the soil, which is unusual for a heather family plant. It is hardy enough in coastal areas.
The hardy cyclamen that have become available in recent years offer very good decorative colour in the run-up to the festive season and even after that.
They are available mostly in shades of red, red-purple, pink and white and they hold their flowers for many week seven through the harshest weather.
They also produce some new flowers during mild spells and this is the reason for their longevity. When planting them out, be sure to give them a few days hardening off because, if they have come directly from a nursery, they still may be a little tender and existing flowers may deteriorate.
Fruit, vegetables and herbs
Dig over vegetable ground, removing old crops, and chopping them up for the compost heap. Store vegetables that can be over-wintered in a pit or cool shed. Control weeds. Spread compost before digging it in. Plant new fruit trees and bushes.
Organic lawn mosskiller can be used to reduce lawn moss. Moss will grow strongly from now until early May and can build up to severe levels in that time. Occasional mowing in winter is a good idea if the soil is not too wet. Grass tends to grow a little over winter.
Trees, shrubs and roses
Planting of bare-root deciduous trees, hedging and shrubs can continue during dry weather. Don’t plant into very wet ground or into planting holes that fill with water. All kinds of pot-grown trees and shrubs can also be planted now as well as bare-root.
Lift dahlias, begonias and gladiolus in frosty localities inland to prevent damage, or cover them with soil or compost in milder areas. Spring bulbs should be planted. Tulips and alliums can be planted late without set-back. Plant bedding plants for spring colour.
Greenhouse and house plants
Remove all debris and dead plants and ventilate occasionally. Water very little and do not splash water about. Set up a greenhouse frost protection heater to protect tender plants, such as geraniums, lantana or fuchsias, during occasional spells of hard frost.