Pacific Madrone

Pacific Madrone © DSchiel

Arbutus menziesii
NATIVE

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Heath Family (Ericaceae)
  • Evergreen tree with single or multiple trunks
    • Thin, papery layers of bark peel freely, in curls or sheets
      • Newly exposed green bark quickly turns buff (light yellow-brown), maturing to orange and deep red before peeling
    • On larger trunks of mature trees, especially at the base, the bark builds up in cracking flakes
    • Bark shed year round, but especially when seasonal growth starts in fall
  • Leaves
    • Oval-shaped leaves are hard, thick, and leathery
    • Glossy, dark green on top and gray-green beneath
    • Finely toothed or smooth edged
    • Second-year leaves turn orange to red and begin to fall shortly after the new crop of leaves has fully grown
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) a drooping panicle (branching stem with flowers opening from the bottom up)
    • Small, white, urn-shaped flowers
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a red berry (a usually multi-seeded fruit with a fleshy ovary wall) with pebbled or warty skin at maturity, containing many seeds
  • Height to 130 ft. with trunk diameter to 3 ft.
  • Can live to 200-250 years old, with some possibly 400 years old
Bark © DSchiel

Distribution

  • Native to California
    • Grows in conifer and oak forests
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows along the West Coast from British Columbia through California into Baja California, Mexico
  • Grows at elevations between 300 and 4,900 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Leaves browsed by deer, squirrels, and the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes annectens)
  • Nectar source for bees and hummingbirds
  • Larva of western brown elfin butterfly (Incisalia augustinus iroides) feed on the buds, flowers, and developing seeds
  • Berries are an important food for many birds and mammals as they persist on the tree into winter
    • American robin (Turdus migratorius), cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), and California quail (Callipepla californica) are some of the birds that eat the berries
  • Cavity-nesting birds use madrone as the tree is susceptible to heart rot, which forms natural nest cavities
    • Red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), chestnut-backed chickadee (Poecile rufescens), house wren (Troglodytes aedon), western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), and woodpeckers nest in madrone cavities
  • Native people used madrone for many purposes
    • Leaves used to treat burns and stomach ailments
    • Infusion of leaves taken for colds
    • Infusion of bark used for cuts and wounds
    • Berries eaten in small quantities or steamed, dried, and stored for future use
    • Berries crushed for sweet, unfermented cider
    • Wood used to make utensils
  • Charcoal made from madrone wood burns hotter and longer than oak; used as a component in gunpowder
  • Bark sometimes used for tanning leather

Name Derivation

  • Arbutus (ar-BYOO-tus) – from the Latin name for these trees, probably related to arbuscular, “little tree” or “shrub”
  • menziesii (men-ZEE-zee-eye) – named for Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), Scottish botanist and surgeon
  • Madrone – from the Spanish madrono, the common name of the related strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), native to the Mediterranean
Flowers (L), Fruits (M), Leaves (R)
© DSchiel (L,R), TCorelli (M)

Adaptations

  • Hooked barbs on the dry berries latch onto animal fur, dispersing seeds
  • The bark’s red color comes from tannins and other compounds, which, along with the continual shedding, deter insects and other harmful organisms
  • Madrones, with their thin bark, are not fire resistant, but they are fire dependent
    • Rely on fires to open up the understory, reducing competition
    • Above-ground growth may be consumed, but tree can quickly resprout
    • A basal burl, also known as a lignotuber (a woody swelling of the root crown), provides fire-resistant storage of energy and sprouting buds

Notes

  • Nicknamed the refrigerator tree
    • Place your hand on the bare trunk and note how cool it feels
    • Madrones aren’t really colder than other trees, but because they don’t have a thick layer of bark, your warm hand is closer to the xylem vascular tissue moving water and minerals up from the cooler ground
  • Wood is hard and heavy with fine grain and little texture; cross-sections show barely visible growth rings
  • Pollinated most effectively by sonication or “buzz pollination”; see Heath family for details
  • 19th-century author Bret Harte wrote a poem to the madrone, calling it the Robin Hood of the Western woods, “green above thy scarlet hose”
  • Largest known madrone was 125 ft. tall, and more than 25 ft. in circumference
    • Burned and possibly killed in the 2016 Soberanes Fire (near Big Sur)
  • Saplings are susceptible to the fungus-like microorganism Phytophthora ramorum, which causes Sudden Oak Death (SOD)
    • The other species at Edgewood known to be susceptible to SOD is coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia var. agrifolia)
    • For a complete list of known hosts and host associates see USDA Risk Analysis for Phytophthora ramorum, pp.6-9

ID Tips

  • May be confused with 2 other Heath family members at Edgewood — Kings Mountain manzanita (Arctostaphylos regismontana) and brittle-leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea ssp. crustacea)
  • May also be confused at Edgewood with other evergreen trees/shrubs with similar leaves
California CoffeeberryToyonPacific MadroneCalifornia Bay
Growth Habitshrubshrub / treetreetree
Height≤ 15 ft.≤ 30 ft.≤ 130 ft.≤ 148 ft.
Leaves
    Margin (Edge)smooth or finely toothedserratedsmoothsmooth
    Aromaticnononoyes
California Coffeeberry (L), Toyon (LM), Pacific Madrone (RM), California Bay (R) © DSchiel

At Edgewood

  • Found in woodlands
  • Flowers March – May
  • Fruits in winter

See General References

Specific References

    Alexander, K. 2016, Oct. 6. Giant Pacific madrone is a likely victim of Soberanes Fire. Seattle Post Intelligencer.

      Harte, F.B. Poem Madrono – written by Francis Bret Harte | MelodicVerses.com.

        Oregon Islands, National Wildlife Refuge. 2016, Feb. 20. Madrones: Our Evergreen, Ever-red Trees. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

          Reeves, S.L. 2007. Arbutus menziesii. Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.