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Arbutus menziesii

Abies bracteata

Acer macrophyllum

Alnus rubra

Pinus torreyana

Populus tremuloides

Quercus garryana

Sambucus cerulea


Arbutus menziesii

Arbutus menziesii

The colorful, sinuous trunk of the madrone, glowing red against dark, evergreen foliage, makes this the most distinctive Northwest native tree. Its year round beauty has earned it many admirers wherever it grows.

Our madrone is one of eight species of evergreen trees and shrubs in the genus. Three of these are from the warm parts of Europe and include the strawberry tree, A. unedo, a common large shrub in Northwest landscapes. Of the remainder, three are native to the United States. The Texas madone, A. xalapensis, is a scarce small tree of West Texas, New Mexico and Mexico; the Arizona madrone, A. arizonica, is a bit larger and ranges from Arizona and New Mexico south through the mountains of Mexico. Unlike A. menziesii, these last two occupy the summer monsoonal region, and are used to heavy summer showers. They often need some watering in Northwest gardens, at least when young, something that could kill our native madrone.

Madrones reach a height of over 100 feet in the best locations. The tallest measured was 131 feet; the largest , the Council Madrona in Humboldt County, California, is 96 feet tall and over 10 feet across. Such giants are centuries old. Madrones reach their best development in the California coastal ranges and around Puget Sound.

The form of the madrone is hard to describe. Most trees lean gracefully toward the light. Branches wander and undulate sculpturally. Single trees are beautiful, groves of them are stunning, especially in the late sun.

Eye catching bark is the big feature of the madrone. Bark on branches and younger trunks is thin and papery, terra cotta orange-red, peeling and flaking off to reveal a smooth, inner layer in shades of cream to olive green. Older trunks develop an outer bark, thick, gray-brown and finely checked.

The leaves are ovate, with rounded or broadly pointed ends, deep, glossy green above, pale or even silvery beneath, on a one-inch stalk. Leaves of young seedlings and suckers may be finely toothed; most leaves have smooth edges. Madrone leaves are shed during their second summer.

Branching flower clusters begin to show in March. Creamy flowers 1/3 inch long, shaped like goblets, make a beautiful and fragrant display through April and May. Madrones are humming with bees in spring. By fall, the fruits, from pea-sized to somewhat larger, beginning ripening to orange and red, making a showy tree even more so. Birds flock to these fruits, especially band-tailed pigeons. They are edible for humans, in small quantities.

Sadly, this well-loved native has suffered in recent decades. Several bacterial and fungal diseases have moved through the urban areas in its range, spotting and blackening foliage and often killing the tree. The best way to help the situation is to leave madrones alone. They are very sensitive to soil disturbance- grading, filling, compaction. They are intimately adapted to our dry summers and will die if watered. Heavy pruning also invites trouble.

Fortunately, madrone seeds germinate in abundance in any sunny, well-drained location, so the future of the species is safe. Though wild seedlings are nearly impossible to transplant, madrones can be established by planting small potted seedlings, preferably no larger than one-gallon size. Give them very well-drained soil and full sun. Pacific madrone is hardy to Zone 8, but young saplings are killed at 10 degrees.

Gardeners used to complain about the messiness of madrones. All year, they are shedding leaves, bark, flowers or fruit. Today most people love the tree and few seem bothered by the mess, a positive change of attitude.