PACIFIC MADRONE, MADRONA, MADRONE, MADRONO
Pronounced: Ar-BU-tus men-ZEEZ-ee-eye
British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington
Sunset zones: 4-7, 14-19.
USDA zones: 7-9.
Heat zones: 9-7.
Height: 50-100 feet (15-30 m), cultivated trees stand 20-50 feet (6-15 m).
Width: up to 50 feet (15 m).
Greenish-white, ¼" long, sweetly fragrant flowers on panicles are followed by pea-sized red fruits turning red in fall and remaining on the tree well into winter.
Glossy, evergreen, alternate, simple, 2 to 6-inch long leaves. Dark green above and glaucous to white underneath.
Dry, infertile soil.
Stratify seeds naturally outdoors over winter for 30-90 days. Scarification with sulfuric acid does NOT help in germination.
Semi-ripe cuttings in summer.
Keep pruning to a minimum; however, if you need to prune out wayward or crossing stems, do so in late winter or early spring
Pests and Diseases:
Nattrassia mangiferae is an endemic fungus that is causing problems with our native madronas. Phytophthora cactorum–root rot and cankeris–another possible problem for the tree.
Rainy Side Notes
In British Columbia, the broadleaf, evergreen trees are commonly called Arbutus. In Washington and Oregon, they are called madrona, and in California, madrone. No matter what we call them, they are magnificent trees that grow naturally along the bluffs of our waterways. Magnolia Bluff, a neighborhood in Seattle overlooking Puget Sound, was misnamed because of a navy geographer. In the 1850s, the man spotted the madronas while he was on a ship on the Puget Sound, and unfortunately, he misidentified the trees as magnolias.
In the wild, our native Pacific madrone grows into large noble trees. The majority grow 50-75 feet tall. However, In Humboldt County, California, (see black and white photo above) one was found growing 96 feet tall by 113 feet wide; its trunk measured 24 feet. Estimated to be about 600 years old, it was split into pieces by a windstorm on February 3, 2000. I was in Humboldt County once; I believe they super-size everything down there.
For wildlife, this tree is important. In spring, deer eat the blossoms, and what the deer leave behind the bees pollinate; hummingbirds feed on the nectar. From the pollinated flower follows the red fruit, which feeds many types of birds and other animals, such as squirrels, mule deer, raccoon, ringtail, band-tailed pigeon, American robin, varied thrush and Montezuma quail. Insects, such as the brown elfin caterpillar, use Arbutus menziesii's leaves as a food source.
Leaves stay on the tree for two years, after which they turn orange and red. falling around June to July. The wood is used for a variety of things, such as furniture and carving; it is even safe as a wood for caged birds.
Medicinally, Arbutus menziesii is used as an astringent, a tea for bladder infections, and as a sitz bath for other types of infections. The fruit can be made into jellies.
The Salish of Vancouver Island used the bark to cook camas bulbs, turning them pinkish in color. Other indigenous tribes used it medicinally for colds and stomach problems, and even as a postpartum contraceptive.
In the Garden
As a cultivated tree, it normally doesn't reach over 50 feet tall. The species is difficult to cultivate in garden settings because of too much irrigation for its liking. It is necessary to start with a small seedling, as older trees do not transplant well and are difficult to establish. Small seedlings are painstakingly slow to grow, as I am finding out with one I planted three years ago that seems to have gained only a few inches in stature in that time span. Give it a dry, well-drained spot in the garden where there is minimal irrigation. If you must water, do so infrequently and give a deep soaking.
Arbutus trees contribute to cliff and bluff stability. The roots go deep, clear to bedrock, in search for water. Many of these trees are suffering in urban settings or being cut down for development. The bluffs over the water may become more susceptible to landslides as the trees are removed. Since Arbutus is one of the best trees to successfully grow in these arid conditions, we should work to save them from the ax by educating developers and landowners of bluff sites about the importance of keeping these trees.
Photographed on the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas, Washington.