Tree of the Month: September – Madrone

 In News, Newsletter, TOTM

Written by Anna Mackey, Operations Director 

In August, I took a trip to the Pacific Northwest to wander through the woods and escape the oppressive Texas summer temps. Among us tree folks, the PNW is known not only for its lush rainforest thick with biomass but also as the ideal place to spot jaw-dropping trees. That is exactly what happened when I saw one particular Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii). 

While exploring Port Angeles, Washington I commanded my husband to stop the car out of disbelief. We were lucky to spot it as the sun was setting and reflected off the notable orange bark giving off a magical glow. I have seen many madrones, having lived in the Northwest for a brief period and here in Texas while exploring Big Bend, but this one was different. It is by far the largest madrone I have seen and in an urban environment at that! The mere mention of madrones stirs intrigue among tree enthusiast.

The Pacific madrone very much resembles its southern cousin found here in Texas. A distinct characteristic of madrones is its peeling bark, which reveals a bright reddish trunk that catches the eye amidst the forest. Their leaves are simple and alternately arranged with a leathery texture. Trees of the Arbutus genus produce a colorful flower ranging from white to red depending on species and a small reddish fruit. “Arbutus” is Latin for strawberry tree, in reference to the red fruits edible by humans but not commonly eaten and loved mostly by birds. They are typically multi-trunked growing oftentimes in rough rocky soils, perfectly content as an understory tree but when given the opportunity will grow into a large more tradition tree shape like the one we spotted in Port Angeles. The genus Arbutus features about twelve species globally with only a few species currently calling North America home.

Madrones are part of the Ericaceae family commonly known as heath or heather, members of this family also include blueberries and rhododendrons with madrones being the largest member of this family. Madrones are notoriously tricky in landscaping and do not take well to being transplanted. These are characteristics, I quite admire about this tree. Preference to its natural habitat over an adapted landscape I can only surmise might be why seeing one feels so special.

I took a botany class while living in the PNW and remember learning about the notable conifers of the area but when I stumbled up a madrone, I was intrigued. They seem so out of place among the lush dense forests. If you have an interest in learning about plants of the PNW a wonderful source I highly recommend, “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” by Pojar Mackinnon. In “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” they share a short blurb about Arbutus menziesiiChief Phillip Paul of the Saanich tells how Arbutus was the tree used by the survivors of the Great Flood (a tradition common to almost all Northwest Coast peoples) to anchor their canoe to the top of Mount Newton. To this day, the Saanich people do not burn Arbutus in their stoves, because of the important service this tree provided long ago.” It is a great anecdote about how these trees are notable from a distance and revered for their striking appearance, serving as a marker of place.

Here in Texas, I have heard tree admirers share their story of the first time spotting a Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) often while hiking amongst oaks, pines, and junipers in Big Bend. Our reforestation team here at TreeFolks spotted one in Wimberly hidden on the property of landowner receiving free trees as part of Trees for the Blanco. The team returned to the office and shared their discovery with excitement.

It just reinforces the sentiment that there is something about madrones, they have an allure that is difficult to describe but once you see one, you know!

Click here to read November’s TOTM.