Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hummingbirds in the Strawberry Tree

In front of the house, along the circular drive, are three 'dwarf' strawberry shrubs. This one is very unusual in that its fruit take a full year to ripen, so flowering and fruiting overlap in time. Like some plant from the Celtic Otherworlds, the white blossoms expand among the ripening fruit from the previous year. The small blossoms that have begun to attract late-season hummingbirds - daily, at about a quarter after nine.

It is unusual for hummingbirds to visit this type of flower - but hunger is no doubt a factor. Little else is available in early November. We have a few spikes on penstemon and cape fuchsia, and some daisies, but these have suddenly become attractive to them. In spring one does not see them visiting similar flowers, such as andromeda, as more appropriate trumpet-shaped flowers are there for them then.

The strawberry tree is certainly an attractive shrub. Its reminiscent of the manzanita of America’s West, and indeed it is a close relative of it. The compact form which we have is definitely shrubby and 10 to 12 ft. high (3 to 4 m.), while the wild form from the Mediterranean is more treelike and can reach 35 ft. (11 m.) The species ranges from southwestern Ireland to Asia Minor.

The flowers are shaped like upside-down urns, and are of typical form for the heather family. They are a clear white and are very numerous. They open over a three month Fall period for us, with a few strays towards Spring. The round fruit stays small and green through summer, and not until late in that season do some enlarge and turn yellow and then red. Like the flowers, the fruit mature over a period of months. Both flowering and fruiting can be affected by hard frosts in the northern part of the Strawberry Trees range. In milder zones both can continue into winter.

The plant is evergreen, of medium texture, and grows at a moderate to fast rate. The foliage is a medium green and the bark orange, with the new growth stems sometimes red. It accepts pruning well, and can be handled according to your desired end results. Keep it smaller and shrubby, even hedged, by cutting back strong leaders or even with shearing. If you have room, prune it up and it turns into a nicely gnarled tall shrub. If you open it up in addition, and it can be a airy screen rather than a dense hedge.

This is cold hardy rated from USDA Zones 7 to 9, or down to about zero F. (-18 C). It takes truly hot summers well - tough enough for AHS Heat Zones 3 through 9 (meaning it still thrives with up to 150 days yearly above 86 F. (30C.), or as few as 7. And the drought tolerance is great! Even in the summer-dry American West it does well with little or no water, and in summer wet climates (like the American Eastern Seaboard) it definitely is better without watering.

The botanic name is Arbutus unedo compacta.

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