Identification: Madrone’s most distinctive feature is undoubtedly its smooth red-tan bark, which encompasses the entirety of younger trees and the younger limbs of older individuals, and which often peels off in large papery strips. Old, thick trunks have dark brown, scaly bark, but somewhere on a madrone you will always find that hard to mistake smoothness. Unlike their smaller smooth-skinned cousins the manzanitas, grown up madrones are always distinctly vertical and tree-like ‒ never shrubby. And madrone leaves are much larger than those of manzanita: some 4‒5” in length versus 1‒2”.
Where: Madrones grow in mixed species forests of moderate heat and moisture. They don’t like it too hot – that’s why we have more madrones in the relatively coastal Marin County compared to more inland regions. But they don’t like the very wettest and shadiest spots either – you can commonly see a line of madrones along a ridgeline, for example, with bays and live oaks filling in the moister canyons. Overall, though, look for madrones in the general company of those two, as well as black oaks, tanoaks, buckeyes, and other broadleaf forest trees.
In which I elucidate two hitherto intractable tangles of confusion
Here in the Bay Area, we find ourselves towards the southern end of the great conifer forests that continue up the coast to Alaska. Many of these trees, like hemlocks and the true firs, barely touch the Bay Area in Mendocino or northern Sonoma County, while others like redwoods and Douglas-Fir continue strongly through Marin and then have their last great hurrah in the Santa Cruz Mountains, fading away in Central California and southward. Madrones are fairly unique among broadleaf evergreen trees in also having a relatively northern distribution somewhat analogous to these conifer species: they are the only such tree to continue north of Oregon, all the way up into British Columbia. (It is in fact the only broadleaf evergreen tree native to Canada.) Like some of those other northerners, Madrone is common throughout the Bay Area, but rapidly thins out towards Monterey and southward. All along its range, it is associated with the 100 miles or so nearest the continent’s edge, where the climate retains its relative evenkeeledness.
Madrones, along with their smaller cousins the manzanitas, belong to what Donald Culross Peattie calls the “aristocratic” Ericaceae, or heath family. He bestows that adjective primarily in recognition of their delicate bell-shaped flowers, which adorn trees in bloom with a subtle, pearly elegance. That’s the decontextualized version of madrone flower description, anyways; in practice, a spring day in a madrone wood is a rather more cheerful and lively place than that “aristocratic pearls” might lead you to expect. In my experience, madrone flowering is most appropriately enjoyed on a sunny day in March while listening to the rising warbles of purple finches, scarcely seen in the treetops, as the biological imperative of song irrepressibly interrupts the biological imperative of flower-nibbling. Those finches love those things.
Matching the visual classiness of their flowers is the simple gracefulness of their bark, madrone’s most distinctive feature. While the main trunk and limbs of older trees will be encased with dark brown scales, the upper parts of these trees ‒ as well as the entirety of younger trees ‒ display the smooth bronzed surface which is most characteristic of madrone. The youngest shoots have a greenish-brown tint in this same smooth texture, as yet unencumbered by the peeling papery skins they will take on in the prime of life or the smaller, woodier scales of old campaigners.
One of the world’s inexhaustible delights is to lay your hand on this thin bark on a warm day to feel how the transport of water so close under the surface keeps the tree miraculously cool to the touch. Human refrigeration is in comparison loud, clunky, and inefficient: a lot of fuss and bother to achieve a simple end. Madrones achieve their calmly unfevered surface by the efficient principle of the heat pump, with water as the medium, drawing the cold liquid up from the cellars of the earth and thereby transporting rather than laboriously creating this unexpected coolness. Of course, what we are witnessing here is the tree’s circulatory system, and the mere fact of the bark’s thinness and the subsequent availability of this phenomenon to our senses doesn’t really change a tree into a refrigerator, a machine designed for cooling. What it does do is vividly remind us of an easily overlooked wonder of all trees, remind us that these are not mere logs and blocks of wood despite their seeming sturdy inertness, but living conduits of water and nutrients from the rich soil beneath our feet to those waving banks of leaves above our heads.
Tangle of Confusion #1: Madrone or Manzanita?
The smooth and kind-of-reddish bark of madrones can lead to some confusion with manzanitas for neophyte tree watchers, but the two are easily distinguished. A certain smoothness of bark, unlobed evergreen leaves, and enclosed, bell-shaped flowers mark their relatedness, but their differences are just as obvious:
- Always a tree: clearly vertical and can be quite tall.
- Leaves are big (some 5” long) and toothed.
- Bark is light tannish, may peel off in big papery strips, and is thick and scaly on mature limbs and trunks.
- Often shrubby, often spreading or strongly leaning rather than simply vertical, only rarely exceeding 25 ft. or so in height
- Leaves are small (~1.5” long) and untoothed. Perhaps it might help to think of the diminutive “-ita” of their name not only relative to their fruits as little apples (manzanas), but also to their overall stature and leaf size.
- Bark is dark red and only peels in tiny little flakes, if at all. Even old, mature trunks are smooth red (or, not uncommonly, old limbs are dead and gray).
In As You Like It, Orlando goes around the forest of Arden carving “Rosalind” in the bark of trees and hanging his paper-written odes ‒ some of rather extended length ‒ up on the hawthorns. Now, if he had madrones available to him, it would have simplified the whole process, because its spectacular bark periodically peels itself off in large papery strips allowing ample room for versification right there on the tree. In summer you can find great masses of such strips littering the ground, though they may be rather brittle for an ideal papyrus at that point. If you have ever felt an urge to deface some poor tree with words, then you could do worse than to simply do so upon one of these temporary parchments, rather than inscribing your nonsense with a knife and leaving it embarrassingly visible for decades. With papery madrone bark and a pencil you can go wild, without fear of forest beautification committees and literary critics, because it’s all gonna come off soon. Render rhymes as profusely as you can, without excessive concern for the literary merit of the verses or the precise appropriateness of the praise. Can you match the fool Touchstone’s effort on Orlando’s theme?
Winter garments must be lined,
So must slender Rosalind.
Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,
Such a nut is Rosalind.
Speaking of sweet nuts with sour rinds, I have known certain women to apply strange creams to the soles of their feet to induce exfoliation: this is exfoliation. I have wondered why women do this; apparently the goal is to return the skin to a state of infantile softness. But trees presumably have no such ambitions, so why do madrones peel their bark? One plausible theory is that there are some things that you would want to shed and leave behind: parasitic mistletoe doesn’t take hold in madrones and similarly peeling London planes make good street trees because they shed pollutants with their flaky bark. Plus there’s all that bad poetry I was talking about above. They probably want to lose that.
Leaves and Berries
Moving on. The large leaves of madrone have a dark green upper surface and a pleasant cool green underside. As evergreens, the time of their greatest leaf drop is in spring, once the new leaves have grown in: the orange-yellow leaves then join the papery bark in thick carpets on the ground. With their large size and the lack of comparably major leaf fall in that place at that time, it can sometimes create a quite notable accumulation if you happen to be walking through it.
The fruits are also quite different from their bony little cousins. While manzanitas have, as their name indicates, berries that resemble little smooth-skinned apples, madrone berries have a rougher, rather warty texture. They are not eaten much by people (some natives did, with preparation), but they are popular with a variety of birds, such as band-tailed pigeons. Sometimes you will see a whole patch of young madrones sprouting up in dense profusion, but not directly under another madrone. Why this concentration? One potential cause is that a roaming flock of band-tailed pigeons descended upon a nearby madrone, then roosted in the canopy of another tree, with their seed-laden droppings finding amenable territory for a madrone nursery.
The Second Morass of Arbutus-related Confusion
There is another type of confusion that comes up with fruits of the Arbutus genus, one that I recall baffling some learned classicists who taught my Latin poetry classes but lacked a well-rounded botanical education. While the Pacific madrone is the only member of the genus native to the Bay Area, the second most familiar of its clan is Arbutus unedo, a popular ornamental originally native to the Mediterranean and commonly known as a strawberry tree, since the fruits are red and about strawberry sized (distinctly larger than madrone berries). Arbutus is in origin a good old Latin name that simply refers to this type of tree (like Quercus simply means oak, Salix simply means willow, and so on) and was taxonomically assigned to the genus right back to Linnaeus. Up north in British Columbia, relatively removed from our world of Spanish-influenced plant names, they still call our particular tree by the name of arbutus, rather than madrone. Knowing this, then, when next you open your Odes of Horace and read from the first page such lines as:
Est qui nec veteris pocula Massici
Nec partem solido demere de die
Spernit, nunc viridi membra sub arbuto
Stratus, nunc ad aquae lene caput sacrae
There’s a man, who to a cup of old Massic wine
And the subtraction of a few hours from the working day,
Would raise no objection, happy to lay out his limbs
Under a leafy arbutus or alongside a sacred stream.
Then you will have a richer knowledge than some of our one-dimensional scholars who simply know that their dictionaries term an arbutus a “strawberry tree” and pass on no wiser as to what nature of tree Horace was talking about. In fact, these old European arbutuses are rather well-known trees, being for example the subject of the quaint and minor lyric “My love’s an arbutus” by Irish poet Alfred Perceval Graves (father of Robert Graves) and figuring prominently in the coat of arms of Madrid and the badge of the city’s second most popular football team. A bear gathering arbutus fruit: very classy.
You can actually find strawberry trees without too much trouble around here, as their suitability to our Mediterranean climate has made them a popular ornamental tree in many neighborhoods and commercial lots. They are a smaller tree, especially as commonly cultivated, but the family resemblance to our native madrones is quite clear. When I come across one in say, a parking lot, I always give it a nod of recognition, as from one civilized being to another another. And I periodically have the same reaction when meeting with an unexpected madrone on a walk in the woods. Both trees can be very serviceable allies on those occasions when I find myself momentarily inflated with classical sentiments and inclined to add a dash of Roman virtue to the otherwise not particularly Horatian spreading of my limbs. Meeting them, I realize with sudden pleasant gratification that I am not indulging in mere idleness or listless daydream, but am actually engaged in that eminently civilized and highly pedigreed pastime of relaxing sub arbuto.
Name: Pacific Madrone, Arbutus menziesii
From the old Spanish name madroño, given to the related European tree described above, and assigned to our tree by their Spanish discoverer, Father Juan Crespi, in 1769. Likewise, Arbutus is the good old Roman name for that Mediterranean tree, Arbutus unedo, now a popular ornamental in California. Archibald Menzies was the naturalist on board the Vancouver expedition in the 1790s, and is also commemorated in the name of the great conifer of the west, the Douglas-Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.