I was given an Arbutus tree for my birthday last year. (It’s pronounced Are-bute-us.) My husband had seen my photos from Foster Hill Cemetery of the two gorgeous specimens there – no, not you Ted and Malcolm, the trees – and he knew that I really love a song that I learned at school entitled ‘My Love’s an Arbutus’.

I had the trees pointed out to me by a fellow Cemetery Friend when I started volunteering at the site four or five years ago. They are both of interest to Kew Gardens apparently. One is just inside the gate at the top of Cemetery Hill, next to the new interpretation board. The other is nearby but slightly harder to find. It’s well worth searching for, as it’s an incredible shape. When I first saw it a 3-seater bench had recently been wedged into its upper branches by persons unknown. It’s the kind of accessible, sinuous, and mystical tree that our visitors like to leave large and small souvenirs in and on – a laminated poem here, a pixie there, ribbons, festive lights and so on. Both trees are marked on our Tree Trail booklet, which is available from the information stand in the chapel. This is open every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Our volunteers will be only too glad to show you these and any of our other interesting trees planted in the latter half of the 19th century: Monkey Puzzle, Indian Bean, Cedar of Lebanon, Elm (dead and alive) to name but a tempting few.

Back to the lovely song. The lyrics, which are set out below, are from a poem written by the Irish poet Alfred Perceval Graves (father of the more famous poet and author Robert Graves) in 1880. His words were later arranged by the Dublin born composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, using an old folk tune. It instantly became a hugely popular parlour and concert song and waves of Irish emigration rapidly spread it all over the world. In the song a man is describing how beautiful his love is, by comparing her attractions to those of an Arbutus tree. She’s slender and shapely, you can see the sapphire blue of her eyes in the sky through its branches, her lips are as red as the tree’s berries, her teeth as white as its flowers and so on. Verse 3 has typical Victorian references to beauty being transitory and death lurking around even the most beautiful of God’s creations. Lene is the name of a lake (Lough Lene) in Co. Westmeath in the Republic of Ireland, and Machree means my heart (i.e. my darling) in Gaelic. (I think the ‘girdle’ in verse 1 refers to a belt rather than a corset.)

The following links bring you to two of my favourite renditions. Which one do you prefer, the dramatic mezzo soprano version by Robin Hendrix or the serene choral version by the Cambridge based Fairhaven Singers?

When I sing it at home it sounds like something Hilda Ogden would warble while mopping the floor of the Rovers Return. This improves if I sing it in a car or a warm bathroom. Why not try it yourself?

The ARBUTUS unedo (also known as the Strawberry Tree) is a native of the Mediterranean, which is also happy in the southern counties of Ireland. Its principal colours, green (evergreen leaves), white (flower) and red (berry) could perhaps have influenced the design of the Italian flag. In hot countries you can buy the ‘strawberries’ by the sack full and make fruit crumbles. In North Bedfordshire the tree is a lot less bountiful. The one little fruit that Malcolm was tall enough to reach and Ted was brave enough to eat in situ last December tasted of nothing whatsoever.

The small sapling in a pot that my husband bought me last September thrived on my front doorstep in Black Tom, a stone’s throw from the cemetery, and over-wintered happily. I then thought it would be much better off in my daughter’s larger garden in Goldington. If it grows to be as splendid as either of the Foster Hill beauties she may eventually need to have it removed by crane to a much bigger location. For now, I hope she’ll be able to find it in the long grass when she gets around to spring gardening this year. She is a professional soprano singer with The Goldington Ensemble, who entertained us so well at the Lottery Launch event last September  and she sings this song in a way that would move you to tears (that is in a good way). When her husband, sister and friends in the Ensemble join in with their rich blend of bass, tenor and alto voices, the effect can be magical.

The lyrics:


My love’s an arbutus
By the borders of Lene,
So slender and shapely
In her girdle of green.
And I measure the pleasure
Of her eye’s sapphire sheen
By the blue skies that sparkle
Through the soft branching screen.

But though ruddy the berry
And snowy the flower
That brighten together
The arbutus bower,
Perfuming and blooming
Through sunshine and shower,
Give me her bright lips
And her laugh’s pearly dower.

Alas! fruit and blossom
Shall lie dead on the lea,
And Time’s jealous fingers
Dim your young charms, Machree.
But unranging, unchanging,
You’ll still cling to me,
Like the evergreen leaf
To the arbutus tree.

‘Soft Branching Screen’                                        ‘ Time’s Jealous Fingers’

December Fruit


Caring for your Arbutus unedo                       Fearless Ted & Malcom


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