Greek Strawberry Tree

JUNE 24, 2021 | LITOCHORO | 11 MIN

N 40°06'14.7"
E 22°30'04.7"

For the first time I saw it on the road from Litochoro to the Stavros Refuge: Glistrokoumaria – Greek Strawberry Tree. Branches fancifully twisted, color difficult to determine, and above all this skin (because it is not bark) – smooth as velvet, covered as if with a soft fluff, once a little greener, more often turning into pink, red and burgundy. 

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the show of changing colors

The real show begins after the rain: the thin skin wrinkles, peels and begins to fall off; it’s then dark burgundy, and from below a new, intense pistachio color is emerging. I never thought that such color combinations are possible in nature. After all, in the countries of the cold north, dim green dominates…
Glistrokoumaria – Greek Strawberry Tree. For me it was the first revelation of Greek floristic exoticism. It’s true – there are, for example, a dozen species of pine trees and infinite amounts of cedars on Olympus, but all the pines are somehow similar and do not cause me much emotion, and cedars, despite the biblical past, quickly become prosaic. Greek koumaria does not create dense forests, it always appears one at a time and it is easy to distinguish it from all other rough and dark brown trees even from afar.
Glistrokoumaria is a small tree, usually several meters high, with evergreen, thick and slightly elongated leaves. It blooms now (in April), has small white flowers gathered in conchs. Fruits ripen in autumn. They don’t actually resemble strawberries, they are small, round and red, and not very tasty for me.

Glistrokoumaria - Greek Strawberry Tree

koumaria and Bosch

However, Glistrokoumaria is actually a variety of the much more widespread in the Mediterranean koumaria (Arbutus unedo), which is simply a strawberry tree. Koumaria has larger fruit, really reminiscent of strawberries, apparently sensational in taste. This koumaria has been known since ancient times. For example, Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentions it, and the Latin name also comes from him, which means more or less “I eat only one”. It is not clear whether it is so tasty or just the opposite. Koumaria also has some heraldic significance – the coat of arms of Madrid is a bear eating strawberry tree fruit. The most interesting, however, is that koumaria is the main theme of the famous painting by Hieronim Bosch “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Painted around 1500, the triptych continues to amaze both art historians and ordinary viewers. It is not even sure what is depicted on it – hundreds of nude characters are crowded in an imaginary landscape, together with real and fantastic animals.

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It was in the middle of hot summer, the peak of the holiday season. I stood in front of the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion in Crete, among the crowd of tourists. I was delighted by amazing sun of July, the lush nature on the square around and the aesthetic madness of the interior of King Minos’s palace that was about to follow soon. 


But is it a reward and a picture of eternal happiness or a vision of seven deadly sins, condemnation of vices and human weaknesses? * Anyway, the fruit of the strawberry tree is depicted in the painting in an infinite number of incarnations, both as food, a means of transport and as a tool of torture. Its presence is so obvious that in the Prado Museum catalog the triptych was recorded as “Picture with fruit of the strawberry tree”. But why North-Burgundy Bosch has so big love for Mediterranean koumaria? Against this background, it is no longer surprising, that the picture painted in Flanders finally found its way to Madrid – a city with a koumaria in its coat of arms. The circle seems to close…

colors for alive only

The Greek Glistrokoumaria has one more amazing feature. Not all is greenish-burgundy. These intense colors are reserved for living parts. Like many Mediterranean trees, glistrokoumaria has many dry branches: dead, damaged, maybe sick. But these dead branches look completely different: they are dark brown, classically cracked, far from velvet and fresh pistachio. The madness of colors and the change of skin after rain only for alive are reserved. Life of glistrokoumaria is precisely defined, entire branches are always dead, from the root at the trunk, as if the internal security system disconnected exactly entire regions, so as not to waste energy.

I once found a felled glistrokoumaria tree on the river, near Litochoro. I thought so anyway. Large patches of wood, with fancy grain patterns, in the color of burning ocher. The wood was wet after the rain, the colors probably more intense. I was enchanted – since they make smoking pipes out of it, maybe it can be used as a cutting board for my new kitchen? My goal was to make it as natural as possible. I smoothed the piece only slightly, it still has a very irregular shape and a porous structure. After drying, it lost much of the original red, but after impregnating with olives oil I received from Apostolis, it regained it again. Every time I cut Kefalograviera cheese on it, I get the impression that my glistrokoumaria is not completely died.


Yet this color has lead me astray! My cutting board cannot be made of glistrokoumaria tree, it is too big for it; the trunk of koumaria is at most a dozen or so centimeters in diameter, and my board is cut out perhaps from a half-meter trunk. In addition, glistrokoumaria does not grow in river valleys, prefers drier, sunny slopes. My board is made rather of Platanus Orientalis, another species that likes to shed skin, although not in so spectacular way, and its wood when wet actually turns dark burgundy. Desires sometimes almost change reality.


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