What is Arbutus?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Arbutus is a small genus of plants found in parts of Europe and North America. Members of this genus may develop into shrubs or trees, depending on the species and the terrain, and several are grown ornamentally. Common names used for members of this genus include strawberry tree and madrone. For gardeners who wish to cultivate members of this genus as ornamental plants, a nursery usually carries seedlings of versions bred to do well in domestic gardens.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

These evergreen plants have cinnamon-colored to gray bark that flakes and peels over time, revealing bright red skin underneath. The leaves are broad and simple, and the bell-shaped white to pink flowers are produced in large massed clusters in the spring. The flowers develop into edible orange to red fruit. The fruit can be decorative in the summer and fall months, although it can also be very messy and may be a problem when an Arbutus is grown near cars or sidewalks.

Climates like those found in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) zones seven through 10 are usually suitable for Arbutus. The plants tolerate a wide variety of soil types, including acidic, alkaline, and coarse soils. Water needs are minimal and these plants can be cultivated in a low water garden. Pruning can be used to trim and shape shrubs and trees, or they can be allowed to grow naturally, in which case they will naturally start to twist, turn, and knot as they grow.

One precaution with Arbutus is their sensitivity to disturbances around the roots. Many species do not transplant well and cultivars developed for cultivation have been bred to be more hardy, but cannot usually survive multiple transplants. It is important to select a final location for the plant when establishing it in the garden and to avoid shocking the plant during transplant. Digging around the roots is not recommended, as this can disturb the root system and hurt the plant.

In some regions, Arbutus is used for firewood. Cured wood burns very well, producing copious heat with minimal waste products. One curious trait of members of this genus is revealed when the plants are cut; the sap is a distinctive purplish red, and the fresh wood can have a startling and visually interesting color. Unfortunately, the color fades rapidly, and thus makes Arbutus unappealing as a form of decorative timber, although it is used for flooring in some regions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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