“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Being a proud mossy-back, you cheer at the mention of the Evergreen State. When you close your eyes, pining for your homeland, you understandably see tall evergreens. Firs, cedars, pines, and other conifers are fine examples of evergreens, but they aren’t the only ones. Often left out of this category but widely admired is the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii).
We often fail to acknowledge the madrone as an evergreen because our imagination is biased by towering firs and cedars. Yet, there it is, contentedly foliate year-round. However, what really attracts us to the tree is the madrone’s peeling bark, not rhododendron-esk, ever present leaves.
The rusty peel of madrone bark, exposing a swirling green, is more than an attractive attribute. Madrones replace old leaves in the summer, when sunlight is abundant but also during the Pacific Northwest’s drought season. By dropping the old, they conserve water, as leaves easily loose water to evaporation. Doing this in summer ensures sufficient sunlight to harness, but that green bark picks up the slack during the process. Madrone bark peels more in summer, exposing a fresh green layer of chlorophyl in the bark, bolstering the tree’s photosynthetic ability. This is common of plants in arid climates, timed defoliation avoids water loss during extreme droughts, but it’s pretty fascinating for a native Pacific Northwest species to do this.
Cruising around Capitol Hill, there’s not a ton of madrones anymore. There are a few young ones on the outskirts of Interlaken Park and the Central District, growing naturally in forgotten corners or in yards where neglect actually aids their growth. While beautiful, they haven’t become a favorite of city parks or street plantings because they are difficult and slow growing, particular to drainage and sunlight, sensitive to soil disturbances, pollution, and over-watering. Their annual cycle is out of sync with beautiful deciduous street trees, looking rather poorly in July and August. Shedding bark, leaves, and fruit also tend to create unsightly messes.
Naturally occurring madrones do well in exposed, rocky terrain and thinner soils that other natives don’t relish. With incredible root systems, adept at reaching for water, they exploit this niche quite effectively. When Captain George Vancouver sailed into Elliot Bay, he saw exposed cliffs filled with trees he thought were magnolias, which became known as Magnolia Bluff and later spawned the neighborhood’s name. Despite this habit, madrones would have been understory trees on early Capitol Hill and initial development spared them. As attractive specimens, they didn’t sway ominously over homes and the hard wood lacked straight grains for milling. Today, however, many of the great old trees are rapidly failing.
For a variety of reasons, the Pacific madrone is in decline. When normal wildfires regularly weeded our landscape, their thin bark readily burned, but quickly resprouted from charred bases to exploit the sunlight no longer caught by the faster growing Douglas firs. Their seedlings also benefited from regular fires because they are intolerant to complete shade. Turns out we don’t like city wildfires, so a general rule, this clearing action doesn’t happen and madrones haven’t expanded on the urban scale.
Older trees are also becoming more and more prone to disease, a problem first noted in urban areas. Fungal pathogens, including the root rot Phytophthora, are common in madrones and though naturally occurring, higher incidences of rapid decline are likely due to higher environmental stresses. Our meddling, changing water flow, introducing chemicals, and disturbing root systems with construction are likely to blame. Blackened branches, swellings that expose corewood, and outright defoliation are obvious signs of disease. If you’ve got a madrone in your yard, keeping it healthy may mean just leaving it alone, not watering it, and not disturbing the roots. There’s evidence that fungicides people use on their lawns may increase declines too – they kill mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, which has been linked to healthy madrones.
Spanish explorers in California easily saw the tree’s resemblance to their native strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), and named it the same, “madrono.” In spring, huge clusters of white flowers attract many native pollinators, leading to the development of red, coarse fruits that roughly resemble tiny strawberries. Currently the fruit are hard green balls, ripening by fall, when native birds gorge themselves on the stony fruit, dispersing seeds in the process.
Their curving, elegant forms, vibrant colors, and the smooth bark beneath peeling layers are what immediately attract us to the Pacific madrone. While serving as a break from the monotony of firs and cedars, they are equally fascinating, integral parts of our native landscape. If it were up to me, they’d line our streets, and if you are fortunate to have one near your home on the Hill, take a closer look and appreciate its annual cycles.