Arbutus unedo is native berry to warm temperate regions of the Mediterranean, western Europe, and North America. They are small trees or shrubs with red flaking bark and edible red berries. What is funny about this berry that the fruit development is delayed for about five months after pollination, so that flowers appear while the previous year’s fruit are ripening. North American members of the genus are called madrones, from the Spanish name madroño (strawberry tree) although this nomenclature is not used in Canada. The European species are also called strawberry trees from the superficial resemblance of the fruit to a strawberry; some species are sometimes referred to simply as “arbutus“. In the United States, the name “madrone” is used south of the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon/northern California and the name “madrona” is used north of the Siskiyou Mountains according to the Sunset Western Garden Book. In British Columbia, the trees are simply known by the name “arbutus” or “tick tree.” It is Canada’s only native broadleaved evergreen tree, they call mayflower or has an alternative common name of “trailing arbutus”.
Crazy for the arbutus?
The Arbutus unedo tree makes up part of the coat of arms, and moreover it is the symbol of the city of Madrid, Spain. In the center of the capital (Puerta del Sol) there is a statue (The Bear and the Strawberry) of a bear eating the fruit of the Madroño tree. The image appears on city crests, taxi cabs, man-hole covers, and other city infrastructure. The fruit of the Madroño tree ferments on the tree if left to ripen, so some of the bears become drunk from eating the berries.
The Arbutus was important to the Straits Salish people of Vancouver Island, who used arbutus bark and leaves to create medicines for colds, stomach problems, and tuberculosis, and as the basis for contraceptives. The tree also figured into certain myths of the Straits Salish.
The fruit is edible but has minimal flavour so that in Portugal, the fruit is sometimes distilled into a potent brandy known as Medronho. In Madrid, they call the distilled fruit Madroño, which is a sweet, fruity liqueur. In Corsica, Italy, the arbutus’s bright red color brings a splash of beauty to the brushland and is used to make jams, jellies and liqueurs as well as being a component of certain savory dishes. In France the arbutus bush is found mostly in the southern regions. The species, with its tough shiny leaves, was undoubtedly introduced into the region by monks. Its edible fruit was used to make liquor in medieval times.
Me and the arbutus
I fell in love with the arbutus at the first sight when I saw the first can in Münich’s best Asian supermarket circa 8 years ago. All right I haven’t written a poem to it like the Irish writer Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931) did (My love’s an arbutus by the set to music by his compatriot Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) but I was close to share his enthusiasm when I tasted. My zest went on so that I started to make research of it because I knew whom to turn to for more infos. It was Na Sun a young Chinese colleauge of my husband, who was quite knowledgeable of it and told me that in China it is called yang mei and most yang mei are deep red, but they can be white, orange, even purple as well. In Sanghai where she comes from on the markets carry them fresh, frozen and canned, and in jams, jellies, and preserves. Manufacturers also use them to flavor wines, candies, cold drinks, and liqueurs. She knew also that during the reign of the Sung Dynasty, these fruits were preserved in sugar or in honey. But arbutus should be dried before preserving, and years and years ago this was done in the sun. Then after drying, they can be stored for months and used in any number of ways. The fruits of all Arbutus cultivars take about a year to ripen. Most often, they are harvested by hand. According to some article none of them should be eaten raw but the Chinese do eat it on that way (perhaps it is because there are so many varieties, colors, and stories about them).
One day just recently Na Sun approached me with a large smile on her face in the university and told me that that she had found some arbutus in the frozen food section of her favorite Chinese supermarket in Münich. Yeah let’s go there and buy some. I immediatelly shared her enthusiasm since I had only bought it in cans before. Then next day she also sent me an email in the attachment with some of her grandma’s arbutus recipe. She wrote me that there are only a few recipes exist with arbutus such as sherbets, sauces, and beverages, but that one is the best of her grandma’s. I gave a try for the Asian pear stuffed with arbutus recipe. I made it with a dark reddish purple frozen fruit. Everyone who ate them loved their looks, color, and their taste. Here is the recipe:
Ingredients: 4 Asian pears, tops cut off, cores removed 1 cup arbutus, each fruit cut in half 1/4 cup olive or pine nuts, toasted in dry fry pan, 1/2 cup rock sugar, small white crystals
Preparation: 1. Put pears in individual heat-proof Chinese soup bowls. 2. Divide yang mei evenly and put one-quarter into each pear cavity. 3. Mix nuts and rock sugar, and divide that evenly into each pear cavity; then put the bowls into a steamer over boiling water for half an hour. 4. Then reduce heat so that water barely simmers, and steam for another hour; then remove the bowls and serve one bowl to each person.
Ingredients: 1 l strawberry juice, 1 l water, 500 gr arbutus, lemon
Pour into a saucepan the water and the strawberry juice and add frozen arbutus, flavor with lemon and cook for 15-to 20 minutes. Let it cool then garnish with some lemon melisse. It was really delicious!