I felt sure for several years that they were strawberry trees, but until they flowered and fruited there was always an uncertainty. Here to the left is the proof.
Why the uncertainty? Most of the soil in our woods is alkaline and the Strawberry tree is an ericaceous species related to the heathers all of which are stimulated by acid soils. But it is true that part of the wood is on acid soils. These overlie the Jurassic limestone which is but a few feet lower down. If I walk a few metres down the gentle slope I come to areas of juniper (a chalk and limestone loving species) and oak.
But can the strawberry trees be native here? The French Botanical work ‘Flore Forestière Française’ only mentions the plant in the Meriterranean section. It grows on the Irish coast in Killarney. However the Tela-Botanica site (another very useful source) yields a distribution map which I reproduce here. I discover that in the department of the Lot there is but one record which is mapped – mine. It is clear that someone has recorded the species before in the Lot but who, I do not know.
The fruit bears a strong resemblance to a strawberry, but in truth it is very different, The seeds appear to be clustered on the surface of a fleshy receptacle as with the strawberry, but it is not the case. The external structure is warty with numerous projections. They imitate seeds but are not so. The relatively few seeds are like pips embedded in the flesh of the fruit, which is technically a berry. Some books say that the fruits are bitter and astringent. They are not. They actually taste a bit like strawberries, though the hard external warts give them a gritty texture. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Pliny is said to have written that the plant was called ‘unedo – once eaten’ (the specific name today) because one could only bight into the fruit once, because of its bitterness. This is just not true! In ancient time the branches were laid upon coffins and the juice extracted from the leaves and blossoms was supposed to be an antidote for the plague.
The blossom comes very late in the year in October to November and the fruits take a year to develop so that you can see both flowers and fruits together on the same branches in the late autumn.
P.S. (29/03/2015) A correspondent has sent me the following link which indicates that the species has been recorded quite a few times in the past in the Lot.