Another reprint from my work contributing to Bruce Bratton’s online news publication.
No matter the time of year, madrone forests offer a distinct array of beautiful colors…and a few other surprises. Some might be confused to see my term ‘madrone forests’ because rarely are there enough madrone trees – in a large enough area – to seem like a forest. But there are such spots, a few acres in size, that are especially enchanting. If you can’t find a madrone forest, you’ll have to settle for stepping under a single large madrone tree to experience some of the phenomena that I will soon describe.
You might also be confused about the name. Madrones have many names depending on how old you are or where you live. A couple of generations ago, the trees were called by some madroño. More recently, I have seen a shift to “madrona.” When I visited Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990’s, the people I met called madrone trees ‘arbutus,’ which is the Latin name for the genus. To further confuse things, you should know that they are close relatives of blueberry and azalea, as are manzanitas with which they are easily confused. Manzanita means ‘little apple’ in Spanish, and madrones have those same tasty ‘little apple’ fruits – mainly way up out of reach.
Madrone berries are hanging especially thickly this year, such as in this photograph taken in Bonny Doon, northern Santa Cruz County, California.
Bright orange madrone berries are hanging this year thicker than anyone has ever seen. Right now, you can recognize madrone trees from a long way away, just by their fruit. The towering orange-red trees especially stand out given the common backdrop of varied dark greens of live oak, fir and redwood. The madrone fruit crop always attracts hungry birds, but many other animals are having feasts right now. I was quite happy to recently spot a noisy cedar waxwing flock in the top of a fruit-filled madrone. This and every year, I see clumsy-rowdy loudly cooing band tailed pigeons feasting at the top of fruiting madrones. The fruit hasn’t started falling much, but when it gets a bit riper the ground beneath the trees will be strewn with bright fruit, and then you can get a closer look. The berries are spherical and there are many in large clusters throughout the tree canopy. As they ripen from a plain green, they first turn a light orange and then ripen to a deep orange-red. The berry surface is very bumpy, not shiny-smooth. The flesh isn’t very thick, but it is thick enough to be worth tasting. Pick out the deepest colored fruit: like strawberries, it is sweetest right before it starts fermenting. It is nicely sweet with a taste like apple-strawberries, but watch out- there are large, rock-hard seeds inside!
Dogs and people alike enjoy madrone fruit. I used to look forward to walking with my favorite dog friend when madrone berries had fallen. When he realized that the fruit were on the ground, he smiled broadly, panting with glee before getting to work lapping up only the ripest of fruit. Off he went ahead of me on the trail looking for the next patch of fallen berries, tail spinning with delight. I imagine coyotes and foxes, and maybe more critters, will soon be doing the same thing. The fruit has long been food for people, too. When I encounter very ripe fruit on the ground, I’ll pop a few in my mouth to remind me of the season. Native Americans ate them fresh, cooked, and dried. There are reports from northwestern California of indigenous people steaming the berries and then drying them.
A Colorful and Early Fall
The fruit ripen long after madrones have completed their annual and very colorful leaf fall. In late August or early September, madrones lose a lot of leaves, but they retain enough foliage to very much be an evergreen tree, casting a signature type of shade year-round. The falling leaves are mostly a bright pale yellow, but some show a bit of orange or red, as well. The freshly fallen leaves colorfully carpet the ground and then turn light brown and get crispy dry. At this same time, the trees start shedding their thin, papery red bark. You can hear the bark crinkling away from the trees on warm days. It peels back patch by patch to reveal the smoothest of skin beneath. Sometimes, mostly on smaller branches, that skin is green and photosynthetic. Medium sized branches have skin that is smooth and deep red-brown. As the trees get big, the bark stops peeling off and is coarsely netted in tiny square patterns of a deep-dark brown.
Madrone forests are noisy places to visit. If you try to walk through a madrone forest in late summer, you will make especially a lot of noise as you step on those brittle and loudly crunching leaves. In a good stand of madrones, the freshly fallen leaves get ankle high. When the leaves are alive, they are bright and shiny green on top and whitish on their undersides. So, the leaves look bright when you are looking up through a tree’s canopy; this also makes for a different kind of shade. Native peoples had a few uses for the leaves. For instance, they placed the leaves to separate layers of food in ovens. And girls counted on good luck by tossing leaves during puberty ceremonies in the tribes of northwestern California.
Fast Growing Fine Wood
Madrones can get very tall with massive trunks and huge basal burls. They grow quicker than you might think for how dense their wood is. Two feet of growth a year is normal, and I’ve seen more rapid growth on young trees. Around my home in the footprint of the CZU fire, some madrones seemed to have survived immediately after the fire but made lots of new basal sprouts. Those sprouts are five feet tall a year after the fire, and now the parent stems are dying. So, there will soon be a lot of fine firewood to collect. Madrone trees make the best firewood around, fetching a higher price than oak. Because the wood is dense, it also makes a good charcoal, and this once made madrone the West Coast choice tree for making gunpowder. In a pile, madrone wood stores longer than oak. It is dense and dark red-brown and splits more in chunks than with the fibrous splinters you are used to seeing sticking out of the sides of wedges of firewood. Some say madrone wood is a good wood for carving. Karl Bareis made a fine-looking Japanese timber frame structure using interlaced curvy-dancing madrone beams, which was unfortunately incinerated in the recent fire.f
The trees look like flames on the hillsides right now with their orange fruit, and madrone trees are adapted for fire prone landscapes. If you find a madrone seedling, it is likely to have grown out of bare soil…which is plentiful after fires. One might suspect that the prolific seed production this year was a response to the fire. But even trees too far away from the fire to have felt the flames are producing lots of fruit. So, if the heavy fruit set is related to fire, perhaps the trees are responding to the smoke and ash? The other fire adaptation that madrone trees have is a basal burl, or ‘lignotuber.’ Large madrone trees bulge greatly where their trunks meet the earth. To touch a large madrone tree trunk, you have to climb up on this burl, which has many dormant growth buds waiting for fire. When a fire runs through a forest with madrones, the madrones can sprout back from those burls, growing fast above other vegetation, competing for light. Eventually, the redwoods and firs get taller than the madrones, so often you see a madrone trunk weaving back and forth far below the conifer canopy, telling its story of chasing historic patches of sunlight. Fires give madrones a chance, but only for so long. Hot wildfires can even destroy that dense, ground-hugging madrone burl. Some of the ‘smoking holes’ in the forest in the weeks/months following wildfire are madrone roots still afire underground. You can witness the size of the pre-fire burl because it can burn so hot that the soil is cooked into gray or red brick, leaving the outline of the burl with root holes snaking down and around it in amazing starburst patterns.
Now that you know so much about madrone trees, it is time to find a madrone forest. The best places for madrone forests are at the edge of chaparral, on the lower ridges just below the tallest manzanita dominated ridges. Madrone stands might be surrounded by tanoaks. If you already know where a madrone forest might be, go to it! This is a great time to visit, especially for fall season crunchy leaf smell, sound and sight sensations or for bird watching. I suggest sidling up to a big madrone tree and give it a hug while standing on its sturdy burl.