Tag Archives: strawberry tree

The balm of thistles and a mighty tree.

tarweed

“Mmm-mmm, star thistle and tarweed — the scents of fall!” That’s what my daughter Pippin said as we started out from the trailhead on our latest outing together. Every time I am outdoors with her I learn something new. I should say, I don’t remember being introduced to tarweed  before, and that feels as exciting as brand new.

Pippin and the Professor had come from their home in more northern California for the weekend. Saturday we hung around my neighborhood in the morning, and went afield in the afternoon.

Ivy adopted the doll Madeleine for the day and took her out to gather strawberry tree fruit. Scout dissected the ripest-looking dwarf pomegranate, and we decided it was almost sweet enough to be worth the bother. We walked along the creek path to the playground at the park, but probably the “playground” on the way was the most fun. In two places kids had hung rigging from big trees, from which you could swing out into the space where the ground fell away steeply toward the creek channel. Pippin was the only one with the strength and length to hoist herself up on to what seemed to be a launching platform. Jamie tried to be patient, but reminded us, “Let’s go, to the park!”

Our destination in the afternoon was a giant California bay laurel tree that may be the largest of its species. I had visited this particular tree at least twice before, but probably not since the 80’s.

Our short walk up the hill stretched out, as we stopped to observe lichens and poison oak, the tarweed and star thistle. Two of us had painful feet that slowed us down. We saw a wild buckwheat, Eriogonum, taller and bushier than the species we were familiar with. From my reading today I think it might be California Buckwheat. But as you can probably guess, the first photos below are of star thistle, a plant you never want to have to break a trail through.

Eventually we came out of the woods onto the grassy hilltop where lots of cows were grazing with their calves, and bellowing almost without stopping. There was The Tree on the horizon, and a smaller companion alongside.

Umbellularia californica is the only species in its genus, in Oregon known as the Oregon myrtle. It’s been called by several other names including pepperwood and balm of heaven. The flavor of its leaves is similar to the true bay leaves from Laurus nobilis, only stronger, and most of my life I’ve used leaves from the abundant local “bay” trees in cooking. For a long time I didn’t know they were not the real thing. The map shows its natural range.

Umbellularia californica range map.png

I hadn’t read that nickname “balm of heaven” before our outing, but standing under the massive canopy with thousands and thousands of leaves exuding their aromatic oil, I definitely felt the olfactory presence as a balm, its scent filling my nostrils as hugely as its image filled my vision.

The children right away began to climb, and to stake out their “houses” in the several neighborhoods that have been formed under branches as thick as big tree trunks, some of them weighing themselves down horizontal with the ground. The adults took pictures of the wide views of the landscape below. Pippin and I studied the tree’s flowers, trying to figure out where they are in their bloom cycle. If it hadn’t been late in the day it would have been the perfect place to have a picnic and linger a while.

In the last few years I’ve been buying the few bay leaves I need. But I brought home a handful of the mega-flavored, special California-and-Oregon pepperwood/balm of heaven leaves, and will simmer them in a winter soup. When I get a whiff of their essence in the steam that rises from my bowl, it will keep me connected to that magnificent tree until I can get back for a longer visit.

How to love a strawberry tree.

This summer my strawberry tree got my attention as never before, for a couple of reasons. First, there was lots of fruit. This is probably because of the wet spring we had, and because the tree is bigger than ever, and has been pruned twice in the last few years.

When I was popping the “berries” into my mouth I noticed that some of them were damaged, or that they were inhabited by other hungry creatures. That began my months-long more intensive engagement with my tree.

Let me tell you why I love this tree so much:

1) My husband and I planted our Arbutus unedo together, perhaps 15 years ago, so it’s got history with me.

2) It grows and grows without demanding any attention; it’s drought-tolerant, shade-tolerant and frost-resistant.

3) Even without its fruit it’s a handsome tree, but its blossoms and fruit add to that beauty over a long period.

4) The fruit is yummy and bears over a long period in late summer and fall, and the birds don’t seem to eat it.

Below, those are pine needles from the tree above, hanging like tinsel all over my tree.

The Strawberry Tree is native to the Mediterranean region, and also western Europe and southern Ireland. Here in California it’s grown a lot as an ornamental and usually the people who are familiar with it as a good landscape tree are surprised that I like to actually eat the fruit. Even the volunteers at the nearest Master Gardener help desk were surprised. I regretted that when I took in a few inedible fruits for their scrutiny I hadn’t brought a bunch of prime examples for snacks as well.

The Master Gardeners thought that the dark mottling of some fruit, which fruit also never ripens but remains hard as it dries up, was likely caused by a watering issue. That seems strange to me, because we had such a wet winter, and late rains, you’d think the tree would still have its roots down deep in the moist earth. But I had given it a long drink even so, before I asked.

They studied and studied my pictures of the worms that were not around anymore for me to bring in as live specimens, but they could not identify them, though a couple of the staff consulted at length their University of California entomology databases. That didn’t surprise me, because if you look online, no one ever mentions one problem with the fruit – all the pests and diseases mentioned affect the leaves or the bark.

We are hoping that these worms will not come back in greater numbers next summer, but if they do, I’ll bring in a live worm for our research. They are icky. I can tell you, they get very excited when you slice their food-house in half, and their writhing about makes them more unlikable.

Let’s switch back to a photo of robust and radiant, healthy fruits. Yum. I think they are best when they are just turning orange, because they are plenty sweet, but still slightly firm. Their flavor then is also brighter than when they red and starting to get soft.

I saw a picture of a crumble cake made with the fruit, in one of the many countries that appreciates them as a food crop, so when I baked a fig and almond cake recently, I added some cut-up fruits. Either they disappeared, or turned blue as did the figs, because there was nothing remotely red or yellow in that cake when we ate it, except the dried apricots.  😦

We haven’t had a frost yet, and I have a feeling I’ll have “berries” to enjoy until we do.

September is a benefaction.

figs with strawberry tree fruit

This might be the first September in ten years that I have stayed home all month. I usually go to the cabin or to celebrate Ivy’s birthday, or both. This staying in place has given me time to pay attention to all the sweetness, and I’m starting to think that it’s my favorite month of the year. Where I live the earth has not lost its deep warmth, the bees are still humming away, and there is more time to just wander in the garden and be astonished.

Instead of the rush of springtime and all the related chores that pile up urgently in that season, late summer/early fall in this mild climate brings with it rudbeckia flowers, bursting milkweed pods, and figs that softly droop on their stems. Am I not the most favored of humans, that I can walk a few steps out my back door and pick a ripe fig to eat then and there?

The heat waves are less intense than the spells in August. We can comfortably leave the windows open all day and night and enjoy the breezes blowing through, as they cycle from cool to warm and back to cool and damp again in the evening. I respond in my several mood and sweater changes.

Many people talk about Indian Summer, but it’s just normal California weather to have hot spells in late September and even into October. If it gets hot after a killing frost, I think that is what they call a true Indian Summer… Call it what you will, I love it, and hate to see it go.

But October is nearly here, and suddenly I need to put toys under cover, order firewood, and plant peas. Last night I had to put another blanket on my bed. Good-bye September! I love you!