Strawberry Tree: Don’t Stop at One

I do this really stupid thing. I eat fruits and plants that I don’t know what they are. They remind me of something that I know I can eat, so I decide to try out this new plant I find. Eating things you can’t identify can result in extreme pain or even death (if you happen to eat hemlock). But sometimes I am quite rewarded.

In a walk through Balboa Park in San Diego with a friend, I saw red, cherry-sized fruits that had fallen near the path. The little crimson balls reminded me of kousa dogwood fruit. I squeezed one open. It was a mushy yellow inside and surrounded on the outside by tiny firm bits like the seeds of a strawberry. While my friend protested, “No, Lauren. Don’t eat that!” I licked the inside and was amazed, popping the whole fruit into my mouth. It tasted like mango and apples baked until creamy. The outside reminded me of a graham cracker crust.

arbutus unedoI brought the fruit and some leaves back to the hotel for my father to identify. He thought the leaves were indicative of a bay tree and it was a Chinese bayberry (Myrica rubra). I didn’t think the bark (smooth vs. rough) or fruit exactly matched the description. For one of the first times in my life, I was right and my father was wrong. But we certainly weren’t the first to have this argument. Look at the comments in this post by urban forager Becky Lerner, who found the tree in Portland.

I later found the mystery tree outside a county administration building. This time it had a placard: Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. This tree is native to western Europe and the Mediterranean, but has been found naturally as far north as Ireland. It is called “unedo” because the great botanist Pliny the Elder found it lackluster and ate only one. I’m guessing that Pliny must have tried the fruit in a colder region, like Ireland, and not in a Mediterranean climate, like San Diego, because I ate about fifteen and would have eaten more if they weren’t too fragile to transport.

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