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Articles listed in this section were contributed by members of the wider community and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of House Shadow Drake.

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Strawberry Tree




By: Aisling Bronach of House Shadow Drake


Published in Traditions Magazine, Samhain 2004 Issue



Latin: Arbutus unedo
Irish: Caithne, Crann Caitne, Suglair
Common Names: Apple of Cain, Cane Apple, Strawberry Tree
Type: Evergreen
Season: Flowers from September to October
Location: Co. Cork and Co. Kerry, (Strong concentrations in Lough Gill in Co. Sligo and Killarney in Co. Kerry)
Height: 20 meters in Ireland (Normal Range 8 to 10 meters)

The strawberry tree, or arbutus, is a native tree of Ireland. The arbutus is the only tree that is found natively
in Ireland and not in Britain, although it has been introduced in the United Kingdom where it is grown in many gardens as an ornamental tree. It is a slow growing tree that tends to prefer warmer climates and thus can be found throughout the Mediterranean as well.

The strawberry tree is a member of the Ericaceae plant family. The roots of this tree utilize fungi for the proper intake and digestion of nutrients in the soil. As with all members of the Ericaceae family, the soil that fosters the root fungi also makes the nearby earth surrounding the tree very hospitable for the growth of mushrooms.

The oval shaped leaves of the tree have a jagged toothy appearance along their edges and are approximately 5 to 8 centimeters in length. The bark of a mature tree is a deep reddish brown color, somewhat flaky in nature, and can actually be peeled in very thin sheets. The flowers are contained in white drooping clusters, or catkins, and sometimes appear to be tinted with green or pink accents.

During the autumn months, the flowers turn to red fruits that are likened unto small strawberries. The fruit of the strawberry tree takes the appearance of globular berries spiked with several small tubercles. The berries take an entire year to fully ripen and are sometimes referred to as apples. The physical appearance of the fruit of the arbutus provides some of the other common names by which it is known such as the cane apple or the apple of cain. The strawberry tree was given the Latin name of “unedo” or “one done” due to the reputedly bitter taste of the fruit. The fruit is edible and contains vitamin C. The attribute of bitterness is most likely due to the fruit being picked in an unripened stage as it is deemed to actually be sweet and pleasant tasting by most people. If the fruit is eaten when unripe it can cause vomiting and nausea. The fruit is also reputed to be narcotic or intoxicating in nature. Sometimes the fruit ripens quickly and is prone to fermenting while on the branch so that if a person eats too many berries very quickly it can cause them to feel as though they are intoxicated.

The pollination process occurs predominately via bees, and the resulting honey is attributed with a bitter flavor. The leaves and bark of the strawberry tree are high in tannins. The bark can be used for tanning animal hides or as a brown dye. During the Middle Ages the bark of the arbutus was used to dye wool for use in tapestries and other such works. The berries can be sweetened and used to create candied fruits, syrups, jams, jellies, syrups, and even distilled or fermented to create alcoholic drinks. According to folklore of the 17th century, a decoction of the leaves and flowers was considered an antidote against poisons and the plague. Contemporary herbalists have used the strawberry tree as an antiseptic and as an astringent.

The native habitat of the arbutus predominately includes lakeshores and the edges of woodlands. The tree is resistant to fire making it very useful in modern reforestation projects. The arbutus was once considered a favorite amongst charcoal burners during the medieval period and this fact is believed to have greatly contributed to the strawberry tree’s woodland demise.

The strawberry tree was most likely first introduced in Ireland by the Beaker people who were known to bring with them the seeds of trees so that they could grow them in the new areas that they migrated to. The antiquity of the arbutus in Ireland is quite well established and the archaeological record of the Irish bogs has shown that the pollen of this tree dates to around 4,000 BC.

So, where is the strawberry tree in the legends of Ireland? Well, legend states that the Tuatha de Danann were playing a game a hurley with the fianna at Loch Lein. The Tuatha brought with them provisions for the game including crimson nuts, apples, and sweet smelling berries. The crimson nuts are actually hazel nuts, the apples are the small apple shaped fruit of the strawberry tree, and the sweet smelling berries are the quicken berries of the rowan. The fruits of these three trees were believed to be imbued with the magic of the Otherworld from which they are said to have originated from. Also, like the rowan and the hazel, the strawberry tree will come back to life when it is cut down and send out what are called coppice shoots. This ability to return from the dead would help explain into its associations with the Otherworld.

Interestingly, the strawberry tree is not mentioned in the interpretations of the so-called tree ogham of Ireland. It could be hypothesized that the quert, or apple, that is referred to in the Book of Ballymote may have been the arbutus tree and not the crab apple as previously believed. Both trees produced similar shaped bitter fruit and could come back from the dead.

Deer enjoy eating the young leaves of the coppice shoots and the fruit of the arbutus. In Irish folklore, the chase of the white hind was symbolic of the pursuit of wisdom and it was believed that the sacred roe could perhaps be found under the shelter of a tree. According to the Auraicept Na N-Eces, known also as the Scholar’s Primer, the apple was the “Clithar mbaiscaill” or “shelter of the hind.” Clithar means a shelter; the Irish word boiscell refers to a wild man or the foolish. Quert is also referred to as “Brigh an duine” meaning “force of a man” with duane being Irish for a person and brigh means strength, power, nobility, or vigor. Both of these descriptions could very well refer to the intoxicating effect of the fruit of the arbutus manifesting both strength and drunken lunacy.

The strawberry tree is a source of food and shelter for wildlife and humanity. In more modern times it has lost its profound meaning as we have moved away from eating and utilizing the gifts of the natural world. By realizing the history of the arbutus we can perhaps rediscover some of the magic, folklore, and benefits of this ancient tree.


References


Calder, George. ed. “Auraicept Na N-Eces: The Scholar's Primer.” (Four Courts Press: 1995 [1917].)

Clapham, Tootin and Warburg. “Flora of the British Isles.” (Cambridge University Press: 1962.)

Gregory, Lady. “Gods and Fighting Men.” (Colin Smythe: 1970 [1904].)

Friedrich, Paul. “Proto-Indo-European Trees: The arboral system of a prehistoric people.” (University of Chicago Press: 1970.)

Matthews, John. “Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland.” (Aquarian Press: 1991.)

Usher. G. “A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man.” (Constable: 1974.)

Wilson, Peter. “Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish Soma.” (City Lights Books: 1999.)









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