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Although the Madrone is arguably one of the most dramatically beautiful of our native trees, it is also not suitable for every garden! But whether you call it Arbutus, Madrona or Madrone, if you have the space, patience and proper growing conditions for this tree, you will be well-rewarded with a tree that has something of interest all year long and will attract a number of birds to your yard.
In the wild, Madrones grow into majestic specimens 50-100’ tall and up to half that in spread; in garden settings, they generally range 20-50’ in height, also with generous spread.
The reddish bark gradually peels away to expose the smooth coppery bark beneath (one of its most striking features). The evergreen leaves are long, glossy ovals of dark green. The flowers are clusters of bright white urn shapes that appear in spring, followed by small, round red-orange fruit with a somewhat “warty” appearance that are a favorite of several species of birds.
There is much to love and admire about the Arbutus, and it is truly no wonder gardeners are willing to take on the challenges of growing it!
It is no accident that Arbutus menziesii is found growing on dry, rocky slopes and bluffs - this tree is fairly adamant about having relatively poor soil and superb drainage. Typical garden irrigation usually provides more water than they want or need – a little benign neglect in a dry part of the garden once the tree is established will suit it just fine. And because it is so adaptable to life on bluffs and slopes, it is a good plant choice for providing stability and preventing erosion.
Madrones tend to be slow growing – slower still if receiving too much water, especially at the beginning – and unfortunately the situation can’t be gotten around by starting off with a larger plant, because larger trees have a more difficult time in transplanting and getting established. So, unfortunately you will have to start small and be patient in order to successfully grow an Arbutus.
And, what with the peeling bark, dropping leaves (broadleaf evergreens by nature still experience some leaf-drop) and fruit, there is a considerable amount of “litter” that will accumulate; it’s not a problem, but makes it more suitable for a “wilder” corner of the garden.
All this is by no means meant to discourage you from planting a Madrone - it would not be the plant pick of the month if we thought it impossible! It is truly a uniquely beautiful tree with year-round interest and great bird value. There are just a few cautions about what makes a successful setting for this treasured native, which hopefully gives any willing gardener the opportunity to enjoy this tree in their landscape for years to come
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Common Name: Madrona, Madrone
Native Range: Along the west coast region (west of the Cascades) from lower British Columbia to California
Characteristics: Tall evergreen broadleaf tree; glossy, oblong leaves, white panicles of fragrant flowers in spring followed by clusters of small round fruits that turn red in fall.
It’s most striking feature is the dramatically peeling bark, exposing a smooth coppery surface beneath.
Culture: Madrones can grow in full to partial sun, and prefers not overly fertilized soil. It absolutely requires excellent drainage in order to thrive.
Pests/diseases: Subject to some fungal diseases and root rot, undoubtedly related to poor drainage.