Pacific Madrone, Arbutus menziesii

    By J. Mark Sugars


(Named after this botanist) When Archibald Menzies was born at Stix House, near Aberfeldy, in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1754, his family would have had good reason to expect him to pursue a career involving plants.  If the Dictionary of Canadian Biography can be believed, his four brothers were gardeners, and in his youth Archibald himself worked as a gardener for the clan chief on the grounds of Castle Menzies in the village of Weem.  But they might not necessarily have predicted that his name would appear so many times in the Linnaean nomenclature of plants—20 times, in fact, as part of the scientific names of California native plants alone.

This happened because Menzies worked as a botanist on many voyages of exploration during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his training in medicine made him indispensable to the crews of the ships on which he sailed.  He was hired to work as the official naturalist on the ship Discovery during the Vancouver Expedition of 1792-1795; after the original surgeon became too ill to continue the voyage, Menzies took over his job in addition.  Richard C. Beidleman in California’s Frontier Naturalists (2006) records that a “Sandwich Islander” would many years later remember Menzies as the “Red-faced man who cut off the limbs of men and gathered grass.”  One of the many plants that he discovered and described in the course of the Vancouver Expedition was the Pacific Madrone; in his honor, fellow botanist Frederick Pursh in 1814 assigned to this tree the scientific name of Arbutus menziesii.

(Root, Bark, Leaf, Fruit) Marjorie G. Schmidt in Growing California Native Plants (1980) writes that “it is considered to be the most beautiful of California’s broadleaf trees.”  As is the case with many members of the Ericaceae, or Heath Family, it has very deep roots, and a love for our typically acidic soil.  Like its relatives in the genus Arctostaphylos, the Manzanitas, it has a very distinctive brick-red bark.  This bark frequently peels itself off—something we are all used to in Orange County, for that locally ubiquitous import, the Lemon Gum Eucalyptus, does the same thing—revealing a smooth, greenish layer of new bark underneath.  The Pacific Madrone’s leaves are about 4 to 5 inches long, ovate to oblong in shape, bright green, and leathery.  It is an evergreen tree, dropping some leaves year round.  Its clusters of yellowish-white or pinkish flowers, sometimes described as “urn-shaped,” give way in the fall to a plethora of very round, orange or reddish fruits, each maybe half an inch or so in diameter.

(Range) Arbutus menziesii is found all up and down the West Coast, from Baja California to British Columbia, but while it is much more common north of the Big Sur area, it is a true Orange County native.  The two small populations living amidst the Douglas Firs in upper Trabuco Canyon that supplied herbarium specimens in the 1930s still cling to existence today; Fred M. Roberts describes them in his Vascular Plants of Orange County, California (2008).

(Size) It can become a fairly large tree.  The Jepson Manual helpfully reports that it grows less than 140 feet tall, and trees around 100 feet tall can be found up north, but P. Victor Peterson in Native Trees of Southern California notes that it is “smaller in the southern part of its range.”  A USDA Forest Service document describes it as long-lived, with some individuals known to be 200 to 250 years old, and others suspected of being 400 years old, or more.

(Landscape) Pacific Madrone has a reputation for being hard to transplant successfully; the trick is to plant it when it is very small—say, less than a foot in height—and to give it summer water while it is getting itself established.  The authorities say that it prefers full sun and well-drained soil, but our native groves in the Santa Ana Mountains are on north-facing slopes.  There are several in the Golden West College California Native Garden, and the biggest one is hard by the west side of the Math/Science building, where it gets considerable shade.  Old trees in the wild have a tendency to retain leaves mainly at the tips of their branches, and to expose their twisty and scenic trunks.  However, a young tree on the west side of the parking lot of the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano has such dense foliage that one has to stand right next to it to see the trunk clearly.  As with most things that are as widespread as it is, it has its definite preferences, but it is adaptable, and can respond to cultivation.

This article first appeared in the University Park, Irvine, news-letter and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Paragraph identifiers in ( ) added by a later editor.