Irish Strawberry Tree is native to Mediterranean regions like Portugal and Spain, where it’s called the Madroño tree. However, pollen from the plant dating back to 4000BC has been found in Irish bogs and a native population is also found in those chilly northern climes.
The Arbutus crops up in local folklore from around the eighth century, with its Irish name of Caithne or Cain’s Apple. However, in the Mediterranean it is mentioned much earlier, with Pliny cautioning bee-keepers to avoid its use for honey production, owing to a bitter taste. The tendency for the fruit to ferment on the tree made it attractive to humans and animals which, perhaps, is why the coat of arms of Madrid depicts a bear attempting to feed on Arbutus berries.
It’s hard to say when the Arbutus first arrived in Australia, although it had long been used as an ornamental tree in Britain. According to the National Arboretum, the first Arbutus unedo seed was brought to Canberra from the railway station garden at Killara, on Sydney’s Northern Line, in 1913, the year of Canberra’s founding. The station was opened in 1899.