Is the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo (Ericaceae), native to Ireland, or was it brought by the first copper miners?


  • Micheline Sheehy Skeffington NUI Galway
  • Nick Scott



Bronze Age; Chalcolithic; copper mining; disjunct distribution; genetics; Lusitanian species


The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo L.) is often referred to as one of Ireland’s ‘Lusitanian’ species to describe its disjunct distribution, since it is absent from Britain and is mainly found around the Mediterranean Sea and on the Iberian Peninsula. In Ireland, it is regarded as native in the south-west and in Co. Sligo. However, a recent genetic study suggests that it could have been introduced to Ireland directly from northern Spain. This possibility was previously dismissed, since palynological and archaeological evidence showed it to be present in south-west Ireland 4,000 years ago. Here, we examine how an introduction might have occurred prior to this date, by first reviewing what is known of its distribution, ecology and history in Ireland along with archaeological information. Then, combining an updated distribution of A. unedo where it is regarded as native in Ireland with historical accounts, palynological and archaeological records and other information from the literature, we present two online maps, designed to be an ongoing accessible resource. The information has enabled us to propose a means by which A. unedo might have arrived in Ireland with miners who came to work the first known copper mine in north-west Europe, in the Chalcolithic phase of the Late Neolithic, which was at Ross Island on Lough Leane in Co. Kerry. The species’ distribution today suggests that it then spread with subsequent Bronze Age copper mining activity in south-west Ireland, though this is unlikely to account for its arrival in Co. Sligo. Previous suggestions that A. unedo was once much more widely distributed in Ireland and subsequently contracted due to preferential cutting for smelting, are shown to be unfounded.