Tuesday, 16 August 2011
A Strawberry Tree of vert fructed of gules
The title phrase is from the technical description of the Madrid Coat of Arms. The gules are the ten red fruits in the vert (green) Arbutus unedo. The tree is fructed because it is bearing the edible but not very tasty fruit.
This is not really a sufficient description of the Strawberry Tree but it serves a purpose. The bear, in sable, is clearly a bear and black one at that (at least to a botanist).
So why has the Strawberry Tree become part of this commonly encountered symbol of Mardid? Not only the statue El Oso y El Madroño in Puerta del Sol...
but on a utility plate in the pavement...
The fruits of the Madroño, as the Strawberry Tree is called locally and in North America (although a different species there), do appeal to bears in both continents. In fact, like us, bears may be come drunk on the fermenting fruit. In their case they take it straight from the tree, where the sugary fruit ferments in sun. We collect it fresher and brew it into wine and liqueur.
It seems the bear was always part of local heraldry, dating back to Alfonso VIII in 1212 and perhaps beyond. In 1222 the tree was added to celebrate the city gaining control over some local forest from the clergy, thanks to the wisdom of Alfonso. Or so the story goes.
The story doesn't go so far as to identify the tree as a Madroño, and one report I read suggested it may have been a European Hackberry (Celtis australis), also 'fructed' red.
But let's just say it's a Strawberry Tree, a Madroño or Arbutus unedo. This member of the heath family, Ericaceae, grows around these parts, and throughout the Mediterranean, although I can't say I saw any in the streets of Madrid (I'm sure someone will correct me on this!).
What I can show you is a clump of trees in Killarney National Park in Ireland, thought to have been seedlings around the time Alfonso VIII made his momentous decision. These trees are 1000 years old, and part of an isolated population of the species in south-west Ireland. Which reminds me that my dad used to call this species the Irish Strawberry Tree, but more I think in stereotyped mockery of the Irish thinking the fruit was a strawberry.
More Information: I'm afraid all my research on this topic comes from the internet, and mostly Wikipedia, but hey, I've done the hard work for you! If you like hard work try this tourist site, or search for El Oso y El Madroño on Wikipedia (and try the Spanish version). I visited Killarney National Park in June 2010, and Madrid last weekend.