‘Tis the Season for Madrona
Stand in a clump of Pacific madrone or madrona trees during a winter storm, the trunks wet and luscious, creamy green and burnished red, and feast on the beauty. Children pull off the beckoning curly bark strips and stroke the underlying pale green bark, smooth and soothing. Mature trees can support many bark colors and textures: the older rough brown-gray squares, dark weathered curlicues, strips of fresh reds, and the young green underbark. The Klamath Indians tell a beautiful story about Madrone Girl, who lured her lover the North Wind back from the embraces of another native tree girl, Chinquapin, by scrubbing her skin pure and new in the Klamath River. She sang a love song while standing proud and gorgeous from a mountaintop; North Wind immediately returned. It has since become a tradition, this sloughing off of flecks and puzzle pieces of bark during the summer, decorating the forest floor.
The first Euro-American explorer and naturalist to describe madrone was Dr. Archibald Menzies who explored the Puget Sound with Captain Vancouver in 1792. The scientific name, Arbutus menziesii, commemorates Dr. Menzies. In his journal he aptly described the species:
“a peculiar ornament to the Forest by its large clusters of whitish flowers & ever green leaves but its peculiar smooth bark of a reddish brown colour will at times attract the Notice of the most superficial observer”.
While a common understory tree in lower-elevation forests in Southwest Oregon, each madrone tree sports a different wondrous shape from multi-stem octopus trees that have re-sprouted after a fire to grand “girthy” older beauties. The leaves are sclerophyllous – thick and sturdy broadleaf leaves that conserve water during hot summers. Second year leaves drop off during the summer, adding yellows to the bark chip forest floor, while younger leaves provide a canopy of green light all year-round. The leaves also provide a holiday-style contrast to the red pitted berries that droop from branches in the fall.
Local indigenous people, like the Takelma, harvest the berries. Band-tailed Pigeons, American Robins, and many other critters eat them, dispersing the seeds to feed future generations. Little kids and crafters make necklaces of dried madrone berries. Like other plants in the heath family, such as manazanita, the sweet urn-shaped flowers bloom in the spring and are visited by bumble bees.
Madrona feeds all of us – poets, dreamers, explorers, birds, and bees.
Author: Kristi Mergenthaller, Stewardship Directory Southern Oregon Land Conservancy
Article from Southern Oregon Land Conservancy Newsletter- Winter 2016