Author: Susan Parsons
The Canary Madrone (Arbutus canariensis) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2006). It grows to a height of 15 metres in the laurel and pine ‘cloud’ forests on the islands of Tenerife, La Palma, Gomera and Hierro, part of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa.
The foliage is a rich, glossy green and the bark on multiple twisted trunks a rusty-brown except when is disrobes in early winter to expose greenish new bark underneath Clusters of small white, urn-shaped flowers are produced in autumn when strawberry-like fruit ripens from flowers of the previous year. These start off green, move through tones of yellow to a rich orange-red.
In spring 2010 propagated cuttings of Arbutus canariensis were supplied to Yarralumla Nursery in Canberra for planting at the National Arboretum Canberra. The cuttings came from a tree growing in a personal collection at a nursery garden in Victoria. Specimens have also been noted in Victoria at Yackandandah Cemetery and Colac Botanic Gardens.
Arbutus are ornamental evergreen trees and shrubs of which there are fourteen species from the Mediterranean, southern and western Europe, north and central America. Distinguishing features are extent of leaf serration, bark colour and texture and whether the flowers are held erect or pendulous.
The Grecian Strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne) can grow to 10 metres in its natural habitat in Greece and eastern Europe. In three countries of western Ireland and southern Europe the Irish Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) grows wild as a large shrub or small tree with peeling bark and drooping clusters of white or rosy flowers in autumn. The orange-red to scarlet warty fruit is edible, but rather unpalatable and described by Professor James Hitchmough as tasting like ‘old carpet’. Dr Robert Boden found, when leading groups through Canberra’s Commonwealth Park, that fruits from some A. unedo trees taste sweeter than others.
In Greece, a hybrid has occurred naturally, which is also raised in cultivation, between the two parents Arbutus andrachne and Arbutus unedo. It is the stunning Arbutus x andrachnoides. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a specimen is about 35 feet high with bright cinnamon coloured bark.
The Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) comes from northwest America and coastal regions from southwest British Columbia to California. It was introduced into cultivation by David Douglas. The species occurs naturally on moist wooded slopes, in canyons in forests or oak and redwood and on coastal rocky cliffs.
Historic tree planting cards at Yarralumla Nursery record that Arbutus andrachne was planted in Canberra in 1953.
In 1916 one ounce of seed of Arbutus menziesii sent to Canberra from F Cooper in New Zealand. These were immediately sown in boxes placed in a concrete frame. One year later five plants were transplanted to clay pots and in April 1918 these were transplanted to the grounds of the nursery with the note that propagation had been good. Seed of Arbutus menziesii arrived from Herbst Bros USA and from California in 1947 through to 1959.
British gardener and author, Christopher Lloyd, believed ‘there never was a more ticklish shrub for resenting disturbance’ than Madrone and recommends sowing seed in pots and planting straight to the final site without pricking out.
Seed of Arbutus unedo received from Killara Station Gardens (on Sydney’s North Shore line) in 1913 was sown in open beds and 49 plants were transplanted a year later. In 1916, 21 potted plants of Arbutus unedo were received from New Zealand and, in 1918, 342 plants of Arbutus unedo from Acton Nursery were transplanted in lines on the nursery’s fence border.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Canberra, Arbutus unedo was tried as a hedge plant by Superintendent of Parks and Gardens John Hobday. Seed from Arbutus unedo was collected from 1946 onwards from plants growing at Anzac Park, Mugga Way, Reid, Ainslie Public School and Dirrawan Gardens.
Mature specimens of Arbutus unedo are well worth visiting in Canberra. Professor Cris Bracks supplied the DISMUT list of Arbutus. These are official street plantings on public lands. Fine examples can been seen at the Manuka Arts Centre in Forrest (planted 1926 and heritage listed) and outside St Christopher’s Cathedral in Forrest.
Prue Buckley of Urban Tree Management in the Department of Territory and Municipal Services referred to the laneways off Geerilong Gardens and Dirrawan Gardens in Reid which are each lined with a dozen Arbutus unedo trees planted in 1927.
Emma Halloway, Senior Horticulturist of the National Arboretum, referred to the row of Arbutus unedo at Ainslie School. These trees are heritage listed and, in 2010, the ACT Government provided funding to install retaining walls around the trees to retain mulch and moisture, bed coring and installation of a computerized dripper system to protect these trees.
Terrance Raath of the Government Tree Unit referred to a fine example of Arbutus unedo in Turner where a developer was persuaded to incorporate the 8m tall x 8m wide multi-trunked tree into the design of the building. There is also an old Arbutus unedo at Strathnairn homestead in Holt. This specimen has bare limbs because local pony club riders tie their horses to the tree when giving them a feed and the horses use the trunks as a scratching post and have rubbed off all the bark.
At Tuggeranong Homestead, Rebecca Lamb of MOTH (Minders of Tuggeranong Homestead) says an Irish Strawberry tree close to the house dates from the 1940s-50s, having been planted in the McCormack era.
There are 33 Arbutus unedo, planted in 1958, on the eastern side of Anzac Park in Campbell, 279 in hedge plantings from 1961 off Northbourne Avenue in Watson and 35 in Downer.
Professor Lindsay Pryor and Dr John Banks in ‘Trees and Shrubs in Canberra’ (2001) list the Arbutus x andrachnoides at Cuppacumbalong homestead near Tharwa among their Notable Trees. Planted in the early 1900s and locally rare, the tree was fire damaged in 1986. To appreciate the specimen one must crawl under the branches and look up to the striking cinnamon peeling to lime-green bark.
A specimen of Arbutus x andrachnoides at the former CIT in Weston, now the Islamic School of Canberra, was recorded by Susan Johnston of the Technical Services Unit in 1991, has having been propagated from the parent tree at Cuppacumbalong in 1981 and planted out in 1984. Seed from this tree has been collected for propagation at Yarralumla Nursery for eventual planting at the National Arboretum Canberra.
In 1991, John Hawker from Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens looked at a number of Canberra’s arbutus and identified a row of trees at the Cotter Plots in Curtin as Arbutus menziesii. These trees were noted as ‘declining’.
In 2009, landscape architect Michael Bligh referred to a spectacular Arbutus growing at the property ‘Raeburn’ 20kms west of Goulburn, near Breadalbane. This tree was featured in “Australia’s Remarkable Trees’ (2009) by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker including a magnificent photograph of the tree with the ground beneath covered in snow.
Allen says that the original owner of ‘Raeburn’ owned another five sheep stations and planted a hybrid Strawberry Tree at each one. The trees are said to live for up to 300 years. The fruit takes two years to ripen and it is palatable to birds.
The current owner of ‘Raeburn’, Carolyn Taylor, says the tree is heritage listed and is probably 100 years old. It was not there at the turn of the last century. When she bought the property the tree was in a very poor state but by cutting off dead wood, thousands of dead branches, by hand and keeping water up to the tree, it has had a new lease of life and is stunning with the colour of its trunk changing once a fortnight.
It is planned that cuttings of the tree at ‘Raeburn’ will be taken during 2011 for raising trees at Yarralumla Nursery for the National Arboretum Canberra.