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 sheds 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.
  • Lifespan 200-250 years, 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)

  • Wildlife
    • Leaves browsed by deer, squirrels, and the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes annectens)
    • Nectar source for bees and hummingbirds
    • Larval food source (host) for western brown elfin butterfly (Incisalia augustinus iroides)
    • Berries are an important food for many birds and mammals as they persist 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) eat madrone 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
    • 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 (MING-is-ee-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, Bret. “Madrono”. (Francis) Bret Harte, 1836-1902. Words.

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

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