Sign of the seasons for early November: madroño trees (arbutus unedo)

Here in Madrid this tree has a special meaning – or sort of.  Folk wisdom tells us that bear and tree statue in Puerta del Sol is a madroño tree and (word has it) a she-bear.  That’s what we all “know” – but the real truth is that the original city logo had only a bear.  The tree was added in the 13th century to show that Madrid’s forests belonged to the municipality, not to the church (that took a court ruling to decide), and it was probably intended as generic “tree” not any specific kind.  Why so? Well, madroños are not really frequent in Madrid or nearby (they like somewhat cooler and more humid climes)  AND…..  the tree was not mentioned specifically as a madroño until the 16th century.

But folk wisdom tells us that the madroño is as madrileño as the zarzuela musicals or the man’s checked jacket, so now all locals can identify the tree, or sort of.  When taking the photo above in the Retiro, two Spanish women stopped to watch and ask what kind of fruit it was, and immediately said oh yeah, bear and madroño, a tiny bit embarassed to not identify by sight something that an obvious foreigner (me) did know….

Non-locals are now wondering:  so what IS a madroño tree?

For some reason madroño is translated as strawberry trees, even though we all know that strawberries grow on vines, and that the madroño fruit doesn’t look like a strawberry. One very cool thing about the trees is that they flower and fruit at the same time – and now is their season. The flowers are a spray of little white bells/balls and when ripe the fruit is orangey-red and about the size of a marble, so seeing trees with both is quite pretty, as you can see in the photo above.

Where to see the tree? Though infrequent in Madrid these trees grow wild in the mountains in lots of north and north central Spain. Because of the bear-and-madroño story, they’re frequently used as ornamentals in the city: there are lots in the Retiro along the Paseo de Coches (the paved north-south street just east Crystal Palace) and some on calle Mayor near calle Bailen.

So what’s the fruit like? Hard to describe a taste, hmmm, a little tart and a bit grainy, no apparent seed so I’m guessing the graininess might be micro seeds. When ripe, this fruit can give a feeling of drunkeness (bear with a buzz?) but careful, too many will cause umm intestinal issues (poor bear) though the leaves of the tree can solve those issues (nature is wise). This fruit is sometimes used for jams, and there’s a madroño liqueur. Where to get the fruit: some upscale-ish fruit stores in Madrid (probably the one on Ayala near Serrano, some shops in La Paz market, maybe the Corte Inglés), or grazing while hiking if you are very lucky, though only if you know the tree (that’s the disclaimer). Season is very short, so if you are curious, start looking now.