The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, has no close botanical connection with strawberries, but it is easy to see how it gets its name when one sees the fruits in autumn. Like strawberries, they darken from pale yellow to a bright red. The fruits from the previous year may be seen alongside the off-white flowers, in clusters of bells.
The tree is native to the Mediterranean but quite often planted in warmer parts of the UK. It is evergreen, with glossy green leaves about 3 cm × 8 cm with a serrated margin. In more mature trees its reddish grey scaly bark peels in small strips. It is generally a small tree, and not often prominent. There are several in Dulwich Park, of which perhaps the best example (and certainly the easiest to find) is east of the public toilets near the café, overshadowed by a red oak (Quercus rubra) next to it. One of several examples in Peckham Rye Park features in the tree trail produced by the late Christopher Howard, downloadable from the Park website www.peckhamryepark.org. On entering the park through the gate at the north-west corner, bear left for about 50 metres, walking under two Caucasian wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia), and the strawberry tree (labelled) overhangs the path. There are other examples in the Alleyn’s School Memorial Garden on the corner of Calton Avenue and Townley Road.
The specific name “unedo” is said to come from Latin meaning “I eat only one”. The taste of the fruits is not recommended! In Portugal, however, they are made into a traditional fruit brandy, Aguardente de Medronhos; its strength is perhaps hinted at by the fact that “água ardente” is Portuguese for burning water.