It’s that time of the year again when each of Madrid‘s innumerable strawberry trees is laden with both flower and fruit. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is one of my favourites and, as luck would have it, Madrid is madroño central (madroño being the Spanish for both fruit and tree). The city’s coat of arms, dating from the middle ages, features a bear on its hind legs reaching up to pick madroños from a tree and you can find this motif everywhere in the city, from manhole covers to dustbins to signs outside official buildings to taxis. Even the football club, Atlético Madrid, features the bear and strawberry tree.
The strawberry tree is a member of the Ericaceae i.e. the heather family. Its greeny-white, bell-shaped flowers are distinctly heather-like, and just like its cousins, the Arbutus is evergreen. Its fruits are large, rough-skinned and (surprise, surprise) scarlet in a way that brings to mind strawberries. Here in Madrid their consumption is not encouraged as they are said to make one drunk, although this is little more than an old wives’ tale (based on the fruit’s high sugar content [15%] and propensity to ferment on the branch in the warm climes of the Mediterranean). While outside of Spain the fruit is used in jam and liqueur making, eaten fresh the madroño, the flesh of which is apricot-yellow, is somewhat dry-textured and bland. My two little girls go madroño-mad at this time of the year; I reckon they are drawn to the sweetness rather than the insipid flavour.
Arbutus unedo is principally found in the Mediterranean region. Curiously enough, it is also found in south-western Ireland (famously in the woods around Killarney). The species is one of a select group of plants, fifteen in all, native to Ireland but not to Britain. Taken together, these special Irish natives have come to be known as the Lusitanian or Hiberno-Cantabrian flora, owing to the fact that their nearest relatives are to be found on the Iberian Peninsula. How this flora arrived to the blank canvass that was post-Ice Age Ireland is not well understood, but it is possible that they spread overland along the changing coast of the British Isles as they emerged from under glacier and sea. The plant “highway” to Europe has long vanished, swamped by rising seas, with the land beyond the present southern shores of Ireland disappearing beneath the waves almost 9,000 years ago.
In spite of the strawberry tree being one of my personal top trees, my Gaelic ancestors didn’t rate it particularly highly. The ancient Irish series of laws governing the use of trees and ordaining fines for damaging or felling them (to be found in the eight-century legal tract, Bretha Comaithchesa [laws of the neighbourhood]) and which additionally places various species in categories ranging from the airig fedo (nobles of the wood; e.g. oak, hazel, yew, ash) to losa fedo (bushes of the wood; bracken, bog myrtle, broom), puts Arbutus (caithne) into the second-last caste (fodla fedo — lower divisions of the wood). Unromantically enough, the Irish only seemed to use Arbutus for manufacturing charcoal or for making small pieces of decorative inlay, as the wood is a rich reddish brown when polished. In contrast to the yew, holly or oak, there is a distinct dearth of folklore, myths and legends surrounding the strawberry tree; no rituals, no cures, no great cycles with the tree at their centre. Nothing! But I don’t mind; with its twisted red-barked trunk, dark green leaves, clusters of white bell flowers, yellow-ripening and crimson-ripe fruits, the madroño has a rugged, defiant beauty that mirrors that of the city that proudly bears its image.