Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: The Madrone: The Red Jewel of Our Pacific Forest

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday August 07, 2007

Sometimes when you’re walking through Briones Park, through the oak-laurel forest on the trail that leads to the archery range and that old-homestead meadow where they line up the Boy Scouts to salute things, your gaze and the sun shining through the canopy and the remnants of the day’s fogbank will intersect at just the right moment. I swear you can see the various leaves getting all excited about photosynthesis, that quotidian necessary miracle, and open themselves cell by cell to the light.  

The dark forest turns into individuals dancing slow as wood and fast as wind, and even the rustle of the leaves seems to change its tone. At that moment the madrones show themselves, shine out, glow like bright coals banked in the green around them. They make their own spotlights. Their light seems to come from within as much as from the sun, because that ruddy incandescence isn’t from their sun-grasping surfaces, as autumn-stoked trees’ are, but from their bark, the skin of their trunks and branches underneath the bright green leaves.  

We really do have some extraordinary trees here, and madrone, madrona, madroño, Arbutus menzieseii is high on that list. It’s not its size—a 60-foot-high specimen is a mighty madrona indeed, in a land where we still have remnant redwoods that easily top 350 feet—nor is a red-skinned tree exactly unique in a state where some of our 80-odd manzanita species grow to tree size.  

But madronas have a different sort of presence. Their skin—it barely qualifies as bark, it’s so thin—has its own shades of red, scarlet or sunburned gold where manzanitas’ are shades of burgundy. They grow as twistedly as manzanitas do sometimes, but on a bigger and more open scale. Sometimes you might not notice you’re standing under a big madrone except that the light has turned a little warmer, and you might just think the sun’s come out or gone halfway in or 10 degrees down toward sunset.  

But if you look up, you’ll see the amber and scarlet mid-trunk, the ruddy branches, the big leathery green leaves, long ovals in their whorls around their twigs making an opportunistic pattern to catch the sun. Sometimes you’ll look straight up but more often, especially in our bioneighborhood, you’ll follow the trunk off on some improbable angle or around a giddy twist. That pattern might have been set in response to the madrone’s long-gone neighbors as it elbowed its way up to the canopy in its thirst for light. But I’ve seen expert observers call it “inexplicable,” so who knows? 

Madrone is tough but likes its sunshine, so it tends to show up on the edges of forests of bigger trees like redwood and Douglas-fir. Companioning with trees like liveoaks and bigleaf maple, it keeps a more integrated distribution and shows up as a surprise—or punctuation.  

The farther north you go, the bigger the madrones. It’s startling for someone who’s used to the picturesque, curving smaller specimens we see here to come round a bend in a dirt road on the Lost Coast and be hailed by a scattered line of militarily upright 60-footers on a sunlit slope. Sometimes you just have to stop in the middle of the road (because the middle is all there is to the road) and get out to see their tops, to take in a whole tree in one eyeful.  

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen one growing from an unlikely bare rock and leaning confidently cantilevered out over the surf a hundred feet below that madrone has a serious root system and is good at erosion control. Its berries, red or yellow, feed many bird species including our native band-tailed pigeon. Sometimes you’ll see a flock of those gathering around a tree that’s having a particularly productive year. As the birds are half again the size of city pigeons, this makes an impressive conclave. 

The berries are edible for humans too, though their flavor is supposed to be dull. Come to think of it, I’ve never tried one. They’re coming into ripeness; I’ll have to remedy that as soon as I can do so legally.  

The wood is dense and hard, but the size and unpredictable form of the tree, as well as the wood’s tendency to check and crumble if it’s not specially treated, means it’s not much used for lumber. It’s smooth and close-grained and (no surprise) handsomely ruddy if it’s heartwood, golden to yellow if it’s sapwood. You can buy small quantities for small projects and I’d call it pretty pricey: Woodworker’s Source sells 20 board feet of Arbutus menzieseii at a statutory inch thick (meaning less than that after finishing) for over $200.  

There’s a bench on the Packrat Trail to Jewel Lake in Tilden that straddles a usually-dry streambed and has a bit of view over the slope. A companionable madrone leans near it. It’s a good spot to enjoy its company, as well as the birds and critters that travel through. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.  


Photograph by Ron Sullivan. 

A shrubby little madrone at Lake Lagunitas. This protean species also grows as 60-foot forest trees.