Trailing evergreen plant (Epigaea repens) of the heath family, native to sandy or boggy, acidic woodlands of eastern North America. Its leaves are oblong and hairy, and its white, pink, or rosy flowers grow in dense clusters. It is grown in shady wildflower gardens and as ground cover in terraria.
Learn more about trailing arbutus with a free trial on Britannica.com.
North American members of the genus are called Madrones, from the Spanish name madroño. The European species are called Strawberry Trees from the superficial resemblance of the fruit to a strawberry; some species are sometimes referred to simply as the "Arbutus". Curiously, 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 name "Arbutus" is commonly used. All refer to the same tree, Arbutus menziesii, native to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California regions.
It is Canada's only broadleaved evergreen tree, with a mature height of 5-25 meters. It has red or brownish bark that peels off each year as the tree grows, while the trunk of the tree is smooth to the touch. The leaves are spirally arranged, oval to broad lanceolate, with a serrated or entire margin. The flowers are bell-shaped, 5–10 mm long, white, yellow or pink, and produced in racemes or corymbs. The fruit is a rough-textured red or orange-red berry 1–2 cm in diameter containing yellow-flesh fruit with numerous, very small seeds; the fruit is edible but has minimal flavour and is not widely eaten. The fruit will dry out and turn brown with prickles like burs that latch onto larger animals for migration to new areas.
A recent study which analyzed ribosomal DNA from Arbutus and related genera suggests that the Mediterranean Basin species of Arbutus are not very closely related to the North American species, and that the split between the two groups of species occurred at the Paleogene/Neogene boundary.
Arbutus is a great fuelwood tree since it burns hot and long. Many North West states in the United States use the wood primarily as a heat source, as the wood holds no value in the production of homes since it doesn't grow in straight timbers.
Several species are widely cultivated as ornamental plants outside of their natural ranges, though cultivation is often difficult due to their intolerance of root disturbance.
Some species in the genera Epigaea, Arctostaphylos and Gaultheria were formerly classified in Arbutus. As a result of its past classification, Epigaea repens (Mayflower) has an alternative common name of "trailing arbutus".
The Arbutus unedo tree makes up part of the coat of arms (El oso y el madroño, The Bear and the Strawberry Tree) of the city of Madrid, Spain. In the center of the city (Puerta del Sol) there is a statue 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 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.