Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

Arbutus menziesii bark

Though it looks exotic, Pacific madrone — a beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree with a captivating and distinctive presence that transforms with the seasons — is endemic to the Pacific coast. Its exquisite attributes — fragrant flower clusters, brilliant berries, glossy leaves, twisting branches, rounded crown, and rich cinnamon-red bark that peels from a satin-smooth trunk — please all of our senses. And for the wild ones attracted to this unique gem, its ecological gifts never disappoint.

Madrona (after madroño, the Spanish name for a Mediterranean “strawberry tree”) is the name admirers in Washington give this member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, while those in California and Oregon call it madrone or Pacific madrone. British Columbians simply use the Latin genus name, Arbutus. (The epitaph, menziesii, is named after the naturalist Archibald Menzies, a naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition that explored the Puget Sound region in 1792.)

How it grows
Pacific madrone is a large, long-lived tree that naturally occurs in a climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers, although rainfall varies substantially within its range, from the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, southward through Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades) to San Diego County. It is often found on rocky soils and other coarse soils that retain little moisture, including the dry foothills, wooded slopes and canyons of parts of California (at low to mid-elevations); within coastal redwood and mixed-evergreen forests of California and Oregon; on dry ridge tops and slopes at low to mid-elevations along the east side of the Coast Ranges and in the Siskiyou Mountains; on warm, dry, lowland sites west of the Cascades (within Douglas-fir/western hemlock forests or Oregon white oak or tan oak woodlands); and — furthest north — near sea level on rocky bluffs and low elevation slopes. Within mixed hardwood forests — that may or may not have an overstory of conifers — its tolerance to shade varies with age. While madrone seedlings do best in partial shade and young trees can handle quite a bit of shade, tolerance decreases as trees age and for those at the northern end of this species’ range. Older trees need good light to survive and often can be found  growing at an angle, twistily and desperately reaching for the sunlight that helps ensure a long life.

Wildlife value
Wild ones are drawn like a magnet to madrone trees year round. In springtime, lovely creamy white, waxy, urn-shaped blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, and other pollinators.

Arbutus menziesii in flower

 

Clusters of bright red berries — that ripen in autumn and may persist into early winter — feed many bird and mammal species, including American robins, varied thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, quail, raccoons,  squirrels, mule deer, and bears.

Arbutus menziesii (fruit)
Habitat is provided for a variety of insects, including echo blue and brown elfin butterfly caterpillars who nibble on leaves and in turn provide dinner for insectivorous birds. Shiny, leathery leaves generally remain on branches for two years, after which they turn from vivid green to burnt orange and settle to the ground where they provide a natural mulch that protects soil microorganisms and little ground-dwelling creatures. Lofty roosting and nesting habitat is also supplied, and live trees with rotting wood offer cavities for insects as well as birds that nest in trees, such as woodpeckers and chickadees. Dead and dying trees provide even more dead wood for cavity nesters and the silent decomposers that function as nature’s recyclers.

Conservation
Unlike other trees, madrone’s fine roots have adapted to search deeply into rock fractures for stored water or “rock moisture,” making it an important plant for stabilizing slopes and cliffs and preventing landslides. In addition, it’s a valuable component of many vegetation types; for example, in mixed conifer forests like Washington’s Coast Range ecoregion (Douglas-fir/western hemlock/madrone), it provides a mid-canopy story, essential for the structural diversity of the forest.

It ought to be preserved for its own sake, for the wildlife that use it, for the ecosystems of which it’s an indelible part, and, needless to say, for those of us who revere its spectacular beauty.

Tragically, the species is currently in decline throughout most of its range, for several reasons. First, sprawling development in its native habitat has stolen many mature specimens. Though tough and drought tolerant (or more precisely, drought dependent), its roots are extremely sensitive to drainage changes, compaction, grade alteration, and other soil disturbance. Because madrone belongs and successfully grows in regional arid soil conditions that many trees cannot, landowners and developers ought to protect and save this tree at all costs.

Under natural conditions, madrone depends on intermittent fires that limit the conifer overstory (typically Douglas-fir trees). Older madrone trees can survive fire and will sprout quickly and profusely afterwards due to carbohydrate reserves within existing roots. In addition, their fruit produces many seeds, which sprout on exposed soil readily after fire. But when humans suppress and prevent natural fires, the prolonged absence of fire and consequential shade—especially on moister sites—may cause madrone trees to die.

Death or damage may be also caused by several pathogens, including a foliar fungus (Nattrassia mangiferae), commonly called “madrone canker,” that reproduces via spores and causes dieback, blackening of branches, and cankers that may spread to the trunk. A root rot, Heterobasidium annosum, can also cause serious damage. Unlike fire, “disease decreases starch accumulation in the root burl, so that declining trees are less able to resprout after the aboveground portion of the tree is killed by disease.” But prevention is possible: Susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by unnatural environmental stresses such as regular summer irrigation and the use of fungicides and fertilizers. Essentially, spores are carried by water, fungicides kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic associations between the roots of most plants and fungi, which protect roots from pathogens), and studies suggest that increased soil nitrogen disrupts the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and tree roots, which in turn reduce the supply of micronutrients and water to trees, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. Madrone trees host a large number of types of mycorrhizal fungi and have been called “a major hub of mycorrhizal fungal diversity and connectivity in mixed evergreen forests” that play a large role in forest regeneration by promoting resilience to disturbance below ground.

Madrone is also affected to a small extent by sudden oak death, a disease caused by a water-borne, fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which arrived in the U.S. via live plant imports of exotic ornamentals to nurseries; it is increasingly spread by human actions, including climate chaos.

Try it at home
Despite all these threats, a madrone in the wild can live hundreds of years and may grow very large—over 100 feet tall, although in cultivation they rarely exceed 50 feet after many decades. Young trees often grow fast (up to several feet per year), while older trees typically grow at a much slower pace. In the southern, drier and warmer part of its range it grows more slowly and stays smaller.

Supplemental water after establishment is highly detrimental: Madrone cannot tolerate slow drainage, standing water, or regular irrigation during summer, which makes it susceptible to disease (as do fertilizer applications). While it has a bad reputation for being difficult to establish and isn’t for the fussy gardener, knowing what this tree needs and cannot tolerate will help ensure success. In my experience, there are seven essentials to successfully growing this tree:

1. Figure out if it historically occurred in your area. Though it’s not absolutely essential that this species likely grew in your immediate area 200+ years ago — especially since much change has occurred since then — because this tree can’t just be stuck in the ground anywhere, look to nearby natural areas to see if it might have naturally occurring relatives nearby in similar soil. In its northern range, it’s usually found growing on soils derived from glacial sands or till and gravels, while in the southern and middle parts it reportedly grows on soils derived from a variety of materials.

2. Be sure your site has the right conditions: Fast-draining, non-compacted, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7), and a bright location with at least a half day of sun in northerly locations. However, seedlings need partial shade to establish, so if you have mostly sun, shield them from hot afternoon rays until well established. Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage. In my yard I tried twice to grow one-foot-tall saplings in the lowest part of my yard with sad results, despite digging in extra small rocks and gravel to increase drainage. My third attempt, which I grew myself from seed, I planted atop a short, south-facing slope, again with extra rocks and gravel. I believe that the increased drainage was what was needed; however, the seedling was also very small — only three inches tall! — so that also may have helped. Note: If you live in a very warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in hot, direct sunlight.

3. Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well. Once they “take,” however, young trees grow quite fast (in my yard, over a foot a year). 

4. Buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes”  helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and preserves the genetic diversity that helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

5. Plant saplings in the fall, just as winter rains begin, since they establish best when they can establish roots first, then put on aboveground biomass. You can plant them in the spring, but you’ll end up worrying about how much or how often to water; during the moist days of autumn you can just let nature decide. Do not add large amounts of organic matter into the soil that could inhibit the moisture-seeking roots from penetrating to mineral soil, and do not add fertilizers that can disrupt the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and roots. Never apply fungicides or other pesticides.

6. Give them space. To allow them to get to their full and most beautiful form, plant them at least 20 feet apart and at least 25 feet away from tall trees, especially conifers that produce deep shade. Also try to minimize soil compaction, which can be detrimental.

7. Irrigate sparingly, and preferably only during the first summer or two. During my little tree’s first spring and summer it was unusually warm and dry, and I noticed some wilting of leaves on especially warm days. I carefully (and nervously!) watered it with tepid tap water (or rain water I had collected) in the mornings around its base and outwards a few feet, keeping the leaves and stem completely dry. I did this only a couple of times a week when heat was predicted, and by the end of the summer it was in fine shape and had grown well over a foot in height. During the second summer I left it on its own, and when no wilting of leaves occurred it became clear that the little tree was self-sufficient. After another foot of growth was added, I was able to fully exhale. Sometimes a little wilting of leaves isn’t serious: when cooler nighttime temperatures return the tree may bounce back, but you’ll have to be the judge at your particular site.

Baby madrone

Baby Madrone, just 4 months after planting as a 3-inch-tall sapling. [Update, 2023: At around 8 years of age, Ms. Madrone is now nearly 12 feet tall.]

 
Grab a partner
It’s best to match madrones with other species that are compatible below ground—those that have similar needs and mycorrhizal associations and that would naturally occur together in nature (if you already have some non-natives that you want to keep, be sure not to grow any that need summer irrigation nearby). Which native “associated species” you choose depends on what part of the region you live in.

Madrone most commonly rubs shoulders with mixed-hardwood tree species that often have some conifer overstory (without completely shading them).  A member of the Douglas-fir/tanoak forest, madrone makes up the secondary canopy, while Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) typically create an overstory. Less commonly, madrone mingles with coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) along the northern California and southern Oregon coast, and with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana), and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) throughout much of its range. Washington’s San Juan Islands’ open woodlands support madrone with Douglas-fir and fescue (Festuca spp.), as well as other species such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). In British Columbia, Pacific madrone grows alongside lodgepole pine. Other tree species associated with madrone include sugar pine, white fir, California black oak, giant chinquapin, bigleaf maple, bitter cherry and California laurel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Small trees/large shrubs commonly associated include vine maple, black hawthorn, red-twig dogwood, willow, hazelnut, and red elderberry. Smaller shrub associates include manzanitas, Oregon grape, ceanothus, salal, oceanspray, poison-oak, gooseberry, wood rose, snowberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry.

A. menziesii with oaks

Madrone mingles with Oregon white oak, aka Garry oak (Quercus garryana), in parts of its range.

 

Propagation
Pacific madrone are fairly easy to grow from seed. Collect fruit soon after it ripens, generally early to mid-fall. Because one berry can have up to 20 seeds, you won’t need more than one if you just want to grow a few trees.

Separate the seeds from the pulp of a ripe, red berry (if they have dried, soak them overnight to help release the seeds from the pulp). Place them in a small bowl of water for 15-20 minutes; discard those that float and allow those that sink to dry in a cool place out of sunlight. Dry seeds may be viable for a couple of years if stored properly in a cold, dry place. Place seeds on top of a fine seedling mix, either in a pot outdoors or in the soil where you want a tree to grow, and cover just slightly. I like to grow them in pots so I have a little more control, but I’ve had success both ways. If you choose to use pots, keep them moist but not wet, and keep them away from slugs and snails.

Madrone seeds reportedly are able to maintain dormancy for long periods (“scores of years”) in the soil, but when conditions are just right — cold but above-freezing temperatures and adequate moisture — dormancy is broken in late winter/early spring after cold stratification has weakened the seed coat. At that point pots should be moved into a somewhat warm (if possible), bright location, but with little direct sunlight—seedlings establish best in partial shade and will grow fairly slowly. Keep them moist, but not saturated. After they have developed their second or third set of true leaves they may be moved to bigger pots with fast-draining soil (I like to use a mix of sterilized potting soil and small gravel), handling them by their expendable first set of leaves, not their delicate stems. Water them when the top inch of soil is dry; I find it’s hard to overwater with fast draining soil, but do give them time to dry out slightly. Plant them out when they’re 3 to 10 inches tall, preferably in autumn, in the conditions described above. Don’t attempt to relocate them.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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89 thoughts on Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

  1. Eileen, thank you for the article on Madrona/madrone trees. I live with these native trees surrounding me in PNW ( Kitsap Pennisula) along Puget Sound. I have left most of my property in natives only with the area around my house mixed with other local plants ( like rhododendrons etc). However I have huge problem try to keep Madrona’s seeds out of these other areas. They are weeds that are solid in areas. I would be happy to give any away but in the meantime have to pull them out starting in spring and thoughout summer. Any suggestions to stop growth that would not hurt nearby plants.
    Thank you again,
    Sandy

    Reply
    1. Hi Sandy. Well, there’s no way to prevent seeds from sprouting, so like other plants that self sow a lot, you’ll just have to pull them. That said, I do wonder why birds don’t eat the fruit (and disperse the seeds elsewhere), since they are popular with birds such as band-tailed pigeons, varied thrushes, American robins, house finches, Northern flickers, Steller’s jays and cedar waxwings. But of course birds are in so much trouble these days, so maybe it’s not surprising. Did you know that madrone berries are edible? If you pick some that may cut down a bit on those that sprout. Meanwhile, I’m envious since my young madrone tree hasn’t even flowered yet.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for the great article. I live very close to the beach on the Oregon coast and am looking for a tree that can handle sunny windy afternoons in the summer. I have already killed off a mountain hemlock and a vine maple in this location. Shore pines seem to be the happiest in the area, but I am trying to diversify. Do you think that I should try a Madrone? The “soil” is mostly sand. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. I’m not sure where on the coast you live, but madrone near the Oregon coast don’t typically grow very close to the beach. That said, if you have an elevated area, you could try. I’d suggest looking around your area and seeing if they naturally grow there; if not, you might consider what native trees you see (besides shore pine). Perhaps western redcedar if there’s some shade? You might also contact your county’s soil water conservation district to see if they have any ideas.

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  3. I have a madrone volunteer that sprouted a little outside of my eaves about 4 years ago.. it’s about 4 feet from the front on my house. I took the “wait and see” approach after forgetting to try to relocate it somewhere better. I love my madrone but realize it could be trouble in the future being that close. I’d like to propagate it from seed. And eventually cut it down once it starts to be concerning. It hasn’t produced any flowers or fruit yet. When will it produce fruits that I can collect seed from? How long should I let my madrone grow on being that close to my house? I’m sure it loves where it’s at because of the dryness under the eaves.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your question. At four years of age it’s probably too young to flower. I’ve read that they can flower at four to five years, but I imagine that would be in optimal conditions. Mine is eight years old now and has not flowered yet (possibly because it doesn’t get whole a lot of sun; we also had a harsh winter that may have set it back a bit). So, you may need to wait at least a few more years to get seed. Alternatively, you could try locating the tree(s) in your area that produced the seed that germinated in your yard and grab a fruit when they’re ripe.

      Reply
  4. I’m trying to decide between planting either a Pacific madrone or an Arizona madrone (we saw a small one at McMenamins Chapel pub and my wife really liked the red branches) in our east facing front yard. We just took out all the grass and will be planting with native (to the extent possible) shrubs and perennials. Do you know of any mature Arizona madrones in the Portland area we could look at? The Hoyt Arboretum doesn’t have any. A local nursery has 4′ tall plants in 20 gal containers. Do you think this is too tall for planting? thank you

    Reply
    1. I’d suggest a native madrone rather than non-native (for wildlife habitat), but you might also consider how much space you have. I don’t know much about the Arizona madrone, but I’ve read that it typically doesn’t grow as large as Pacific madrone. I’m also not certain if it needs to be as small at planting time as our native madrone, but 4 feet tall does sound large. Btw, Pacific madrone also has very colorful/beautiful bark. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  5. Hello,
    We have a couple of madrone in the yard that are around 3 feet tall. Is it safe to move them to another spot or should we just leave them where they are? We are thinking about moving them farther up in the yard. They are just growing naturally. We didn’t plant them. If it is safe, how far away from utility lines should they be planted?

    Reply
    1. At that size, I think it would be highly unlikely that they would survive if they were moved, since they cannot tolerate site disturbance. (If you were to try, I’d suggest placing trunks at least 15 feet away from any high-voltage power lines.)

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  6. Thanks for your response, Eileen. At the moment, there is no problem. I’m looking at a year or more ahead when it’s lower branches begin to cover the primary path up to our house. At some point I think I’ll have to prune it for that reason. Better to do so sooner than later? Nevertheless, I agree in principle to the idea of letting it go crazy, which it is doing very well and seems pretty happy and is a pleasure to watch grow!

    Reply
  7. Eileen. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on pruning a Madrone? My “youngster” is probably ten feet tall now- skinny, putting out branches in every direction and is gangly like a young boy. I’m afraid to touch it much less apply pruning shears to it. I’m guessing that hands-off is still the best policy at this young age. Thoughts?

    Reply
  8. Great info Eileen! I have a small yard and I know these are huge trees. At the same time, I see many multi stemmed or shorter ones that have been damaged by nature, in the wild. Would you attempt to grow one in a small yard? Would you take any steps to keep it shorter?

    Reply
    1. Hi Kristine, it’s difficult for me to make recommendations without seeing your yard and I don’t know what you mean by “small,” but in general, I recommend giving madrones enough space to accommodate their mature width as well as height. I’m not sure why you’d want to shorten one, but topping trees permanently disfigures and damages them, and may even kill them. It’s always best to choose and place most plants so they won’t need pruning, which can alter their natural habit and minimize wildlife appeal (as well as aesthetic qualities). Also consider things like whether the soil is or could become very compacted near a tree, whether you have good drainage, whether you would water other plants near it during summer, etc. Hope that helps.

      Reply
      1. I have just read your page on Arbutus which is excellent. I live in Victoria BC. Birds planted two trees in my garden which have done very well. Both are well over 30 feet tall. One is behind a rock retaining wall which used to hold the concrete septic tank, long since disconnected. The tree is leaning away from the house and I think has cracked the rock wall which is breaking into two parts. The wall is four feet tall. Will the wall fail and the tree fall down? Saanich municipality protect arbutus, which I approve of but….I do like the rock wall….dilemma….No arborist will cut the tree down or prune it without written and inspected municipal approval.

        Reply
        1. I really cannot advise you without seeing it in person. I’d suggest consulting a certified arborist to determine the best course and the District of Saanich to get approval. If you must remove it I hope you will be able to plant another madrone (or other native species) in a more appropriate location.

          Reply
  9. Thank you so much for this informative article! I have a baby madrona with some purple spots. It’s top died back during our heatwave last summer. I am worried the spots are a permanent fungal infection, and I’m tempted to remove all the leaves with spots to see if new ones will grow. If it does not survive, I will replace it. Is this a crazy plan?

    Reply
    1. Those leaves won’t be replaced in their current placement; new leaves will grow further out on the branches. I’d wait to remove them unless it’s just a few leaves and there are others to photosynthesize. Be sure you’re growing madrone where there is plenty of air circulation. Good luck!

      Reply
  10. I am interested in planting a Modrona tree in my backyard. I live in SF Bay Area. We are experiencing warmer than usual weather and currently in a drought. The area I am looking to plant is morning shade afternoon sun, when mature it will be full sun. Area is flat w clay soil. We didn’t really have a winter this year, let alone much rain. Thoughts on planting this with success?

    Reply
    1. Perhaps you missed this?: “If you live in a very warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in hot, direct sunlight.” and “Fast-draining, non-compacted, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7) … Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated (even slightly) above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage.” I”m not sure you have the right conditions. You might want to check with your county SWCD and/or Cal. Native Plant Society.

      Reply
  11. I’m hoping to plant a Pacific Madrone, Arbutus menziesii, in my back yard. The soil in my yard tends to drain well and has some rocks in it. I plan to create a low mound.
    I have a couple of questions (if I’m not too late!).
    1)Is January or February too late to plant one of these? I know Fall is best because you want to avoid watering.
    2) You mention adding rocks to the soil. Is there a certain type or size I should look for? I have quarter minus rock, but that may be too small with risk of compaction?

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Hi Lynne, I’d go ahead and plant it soon (I planted my little start in early Feb) and it will still have a few months of wet weather. I don’t recommend small crushed gravel, which might also increase the pH. Some smallish pebbles are ok, but if you have rocks that are at least a couple of inches wide I’d add those. Best of luck and thank you for growing natives!

      Reply
  12. Hi Eileen,
    Thanks for your great information! I want to plant Madrone seeds in small pots and then transplant the small seedlings into the ground, but I am having trouble finding the fine seedling mix you recommended at my local nurseries. I did find this recipe online:
    To make a peat substitute, use 1 part compost, 1 part OMRI coir, and 1 part perlite.
    To make seedling mix, use 2 parts screened compost, 1 part substitute peat, 1 part perlite, and 1/4 cup worm castings.
    Does this sound right for Madrone seeds?
    Thanks!

    Reply
  13. I would like to try planting some seeds I collected from berries I picked up off of the ground. The seeds are so tiny for such a magnificent tree! Do you plant 1 little seed in a pot? Or several? I was thinking of putting 3-4 seeds in little 3″ pots assuming that most will not sprout.

    And you said to keep the pots outside, but don’t let them get too wet, which means keeping them out of the rain. Could I keep little pots on my back covered patio and water with collected rain water just enough to keep them moist? My patio is on the north side of the house, so the pots would not get any sun.

    And my last question is about fine seedling mix. Do you have a favorite mix? What ingredients should be in the mix. You discourage using compost.

    Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      Yes, I’d put several seeds per pot. You could keep them on your porch and put them out in a gentle shower once in awhile. As it gets colder they won’t dry out very quickly; I can usually tell just by weight. But be sure to put them in brighter light in January or so, since I’ve had some sprout in very early Feb. I don’t have a favorite brand of seed starting mix (and I sometimes make my own), but you can buy a bag at your local garden store. If you can find some without peat, so much the better. Good luck!

      Reply
  14. I want to transplant a Madrona and seem to remember literature saying it is best to use a shovel and cut around the roots a period of time (months?) before you transplant it. Do you know anything about this?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. No, I’ve never heard that one. But it depends on how large it is and whether it’s established. Personally, I wouldn’t try to transplant one that’s taller than a foot tall or so and I wouldn’t mess with its roots. You could try, of course, if it’s in a bad spot, but it may not make it.

      Reply
  15. Eileen: So, we are nearing the end of this heatwave. My madrone (4 yrs. old, now at 9′ tall) looked fine through this morning. Tonight, I see the top has wilted and there is scorch on many leaves. The ends of some branches look fine. I’m still assuming no need to water but I’m wondering if you have thoughts on this excessive heat and madrone health. Thanks! Tom

    Reply
    1. Tom, no brilliant thoughts, but I know that in CA in places where it gets very hot they recommend growing madrone on the north side of slopes where they won’t get too much direct sunlight. I’ve been fretting that mine doesn’t get enough sun, but maybe it’s not a bad thing. If that hideous heat happens again, I wonder if there might be some way to somehow shade it in the afternoon (can you plant another fast-growing tree?). Regardless, I hope this morning you found the top perked up. If so, I probably wouldn’t water it. However, I’ve been watering plants (none are very keep rooted, so not deep watering) that are just beyond mine’s drip line and it’s been fine. I’m not recommending that you water, but if you feel you must, water at the drip line. Remember that madrone have very deep roots (not sure how deep at this age, though!). Hope that helps and good luck!

      Reply
      1. Eileen: Update on my madrone. It definitely survived the big heat of this past summer, thankfully. Going on five years old now and about 9′ tall. But, something I’ve not noticed in years past, new leaves are emerging all over, in LATE NOVEMBER! This seems odd to me. I’m a bit worried the first freeze will wreck havoc with all these new leaves. Do you have any thoughts on this? (BTW, I contacted OSU Extension but they gave me only general information which did not address this particular question.)

        Reply
        1. Hi Tom: Oddly enough, I’m quite sure that mine (about the same size) did that last year and it was fine all winter, so don’t worry. I remember wondering about it and then during the following summer it didn’t add as many new leaves as the previous year. Right now I’m just seeing little buds.

          Reply
  16. I am very concerned about the health of our established Madrone. Is there anyone you’d recommend I could share some photos with. I am so terrified to lose this tree.

    Reply
    1. I’m very sorry to hear of your tree. I’d suggest contacting an arborist in your area. At the very least perhaps you can keep it as a snag, which provides valuable habitat.

      Reply
  17. I have not seen that one. There is one closer to me, somewhere in Concordia neighborhood, maybe near 26th and something or other. It is mature but on a shady street from my recollection. I’ll give a walk of the neighborhood and see if I can find it again. Thank you for the info. I won’t worry about mine yet although, knowing how they have their “moods,” I always walk by and wonder how it is doing!

    Reply
  18. Hi, Eileen: Regarding flowering and berries. My madrone is now going into it’s fourth full season here in a NE PDX lot and is about 7′ tall. Seems to be doing well. So far, no flowers. Should there have been flowers by now or can I expect to wait a few more years? (BTW: I bought your book and found it to be excellent! Nice work – photos, layout, and information.)
    Tom

    Reply
    1. Tom, I’m so glad you’ve found the book helpful. I’ve read that madrone typically will begin flowering around age 8, although I imagine that may depend on sun levels. Mine is six years old and has not flowered either … I guess we need to be patient. Since you live in NE, have you seen the gorgeous madrone on the north side of Klickitat St, about 3 lots west of NE 35th Ave? Mine doesn’t get nearly that much sun :-/

      Reply
  19. Eileen,
    Thanks for your ariticle. I live in the San Juan Islands, perfect madrona habitat. I just moved here and saw I have one in my yard. I also noticed that it did not grow berries last fall like the other madrona I’ve seen. I’m worried that it is not doing as well and don’t know how to help it. I will try growing a few in pots and transplanting. I wish I could buy one that is already a foot or two tall. I suppose no one sells them?

    Reply
    1. Did it flower? Perhaps all the fruit was eaten. Don’t forget that it’s best to only plant madrone saplings that are very small—no more than one foot tall. Don’t water in the vicinity of its roots; madrones are long lived if left undisturbed, so hopefully it’s ok.

      Reply
  20. What a wonderful article!
    I’m developing a mitigation planting plan for a bridge replacement project in Big Sur. I’m specifying a variety of native 1 gallon trees, and each will receive 0.5 cubic feet of fine compost + 3 oz organic fertilizer at planting, and 3 oz organic fertilizer added 6 months after planting. I know madrones don’t care for fertilizer or rich compost, but since the soil has been disturbed, do you think it would be okay to use? Or should I omit all of that stuff for the madrones? It’s my favorite native tree and I really want these ones to succeed 🙂

    Reply
    1. Hi Chelsea, that sounds like a wonderful project in such a beautiful place! I would definitely not recommend the fertilizer. Fine compost might be OK if it is low in nutrients (such as leaf compost), but it should be well mixed into the surrounding soil. As long as you plant in native soil that drains quickly, and the saplings are no more than a foot tall, you should be fine. Best of luck!

      Reply
  21. thank you! I am in portland and I just planted two 1 foot tall pacific madrones. The nursery said to add in volcanic material, tiny rocks, to the soil, and to mound them up so they are not in a low point, and the water can run off. I mounded them up about 6″ from the grass level. Of course we then got rain for the next 3 weeks after planting, and now snow. Any ideas on if I should shelter them from snow and freeze with a covering of some sort? thank you!!

    Reply
    1. Well, the snow and low temps are over, so you should be fine in that regard. I would recommend a wider and higher mound than 6 inches, but they might be fine if they’re not in a spot that’s lower than the surroundings (see “try it at home” in the post).

      Reply
  22. Hi Eileen,
    Thank you for this great article! Even if it has made me a bit weary of my intention to grow a madrone.
    I’m in Portland and am strongly considering planting a madrone in a pot with rock and soil integrated with placenta. I’d like to see the tree thrive and grow alongside my son who was also nurtured by the placenta and hope to enjoy it for all of my life. Am I setting myself up for massive failure by potting a Madrone with bio compost?
    If this sounds like an awful choice, I’d appreciate tree suggestions! I’m looking for an evergreen tree that produces fruit and does well down to zone 7 – something that will tolerate a pot for at least a few years.

    Reply
    1. No, don’t keep it in a pot after it’s over around a foot tall. It will eventually get rootbound and then die; if you tried to plant it out when it’s much larger than a foot tall, it will likely not survive. Also, as you read, madrone do not do well with rich compost or fertilizer. You could try an evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)—they do best with rich, acidic soil. They stay smaller in sun, get larger in shade or part shade. Check out my post on growing natives in containers.

      Reply
  23. My wife and I are very interested in planting just one Madrone on our property here in Portland, Oregon. I think it’s the most beautiful of the tier 5 trees on the city’s plant list and it seems to check all of the co-benefit boxes (pollinators, hummingbirds, etc.). Do you know how deep the roots extend below grade, and if they can penetrate sewer or water lines? If we planted in the front yard the best spot is about 6′ to 8′ east of sewer line, and the grade is 6′ to 8′ above the pipe. Would that be far enough? We are planning a rock-filled rain garden for the front so the Madrone may be happy there. However, if the sewer is too big a risk we would plant in the back yard. Also, we believe we have almost 100% clay, slow draining soils in the front and back yards (I drainage tested multiple spots today). So I plan on amending the soil, but not sure how deep the well drained soil should be and how wide. I could layer in several yards of drainage rock, compost, etc. and top it with mulch to create well drained base, but how deep should it be to ensure healthy long term Madrone growth? If the roots hit our existing thick clay soils 12″ down, or within maybe 6′ of the tree’s center, would this be a recipe for root rot? Thank you for your lovely post, it was super helpful.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your questions, Adam. It’s sort of a myth that roots can cause breaks in sewer pipes. Roots typically get into systems when there is an existing hole or crack in a pipe. That said, if planted directly above a pipe, a tree’s root ball could cause pressure, so don’t plant it too close. As I wrote, madrone roots go very deep, even to bedrock. Clay soil shouldn’t be an issue as long as you don’t water much, if at all, in summer, and you can provide some elevation. I have clay soil, like most of the Portland area. Reread the “try it at home” section, particularly the part about providing some elevation and mixing in gravel/small rocks. If you add any compost, be sure that it’s low-nitrogen … don’t use any bagged, prepared compost; a small amount of leaf compost or composted conifer needles should be ok but not necessary. I’d mulch with needles to increase acidity if you can get your hands on some. A rain garden collects water from your roof, so definitely don’t put it nearby! If you want to buy a little one, I have a couple right now that I grew from seed … contact me via the contract form if you’re interested.

      Reply
  24. Very thorough article on madrones. Thanks!
    You say they prefer well drained and slightly acidic soil, however I have several growing in the city in very alkaline clay soil and are thriving. One is an Oregon State Historic Tree, planted in 1950 which is 75 ft. high and 75 ft. wide, said to be extremely large for a 70 year old madrone. Five other madrones on the lot are over a foot in diameter, and there are many smaller ones as well. All are within 30 feet of the sidewalk, with roots extending under the street. These conditions do not seem to hinder their growth.

    Reply
    1. Yes, madrones often do well in urban areas, as you note, as long as they aren’t overwatered in the dry months, become overly compacted, or succumb to disease. I have one in my backyard, which is also mostly clay soil. I wonder how alkaline your soil is … have you tested it? Regardless, testing just the upper few inches may not tell you what the pH is far below, where the feeder roots are.

      Reply
  25. Thanks for the clarification and additional info. Erosion control planting is definitely something that I need, and I appreciate you pointing me in the right directions early in my learning journey! Thank you!! Cheers!

    Reply
  26. Hi Eileen, thank you so much for the quick reply, and for the suggestions. I really appreciate them, and they give me more confidence to get to work helping out this Madrone, without worry that I’m hurting it in the process. Thanks so much! I’ll post a pic somewhere down the line!

    Reply
    1. Sounds good! And when I wrote “pronged spade” I meant a “garden fork”. That said, you should be able to remove a fair amount of ivy by loosening it and pulling. I’d also suggest, if it’s steep, to plant ground cover or shrubs that are good at erosion control, such as kinnikinnick (for sun to part sun) or sword ferns (for shadier sites). There are others, of course; feel free to ask. Or, if you can’t get plants in the ground soon you could use a jute erosion control cloth or similar (but not plastic!).

      Reply
  27. Hi Eileen, thanks for the great piece. I’ve just bought a home and today I discovered that the quite steeply slope woods in my backyard contain a madrone whose trunk is maybe 6” to 8” in diameter. The problem is that rampant thick English Ivy and a tree-sized holly are smothering and intruding on the madrone. I was planning to hack out the ivy and cut down the holly tree but after reading on the madrone, am concerned about risks of disturbing soil and roots of madrone on a steep slope. Any thoughts on how how careful I have to be with roots or soil changes around a madrone of this age, and or tips on an approach? I’m a madrone lover only since about 3pm today, so thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. How nice you’ve found a madrone and that you will be saving it! English ivy’s roots aren’t very deep and you should be able to get it out without any deep digging or disturbance to the madrone (be extra careful from the trunk out to several feet past the tree’s drip line). I’d suggest using a pronged spade to get up the roots, rather than a solid spade. Keep in mind that it may take several tries over several years to get it all, especially if fruit has fallen to the ground. If there is ivy attached to the bark of the madrone, cut it at the base of the tree (without pulling off any bark) and just let it die on the tree. I would cut down the holly tree, but it will likely sprout up again near the base (or perhaps further out), so you’ll need to keep an eye on it and cut back any sprouts as soon possibly after after you notice them. Don’t use herbicides and try not to spend too much time on the madrone’s roots (especially while the soil is wet) since compaction can be problematic. If you have further questions just let me know.

      Reply
  28. What is the best strategy for thinning young madrone trees that have sprouted (like grass, literally) in a recently logged area of my property in the Puget sound area. Given that they eventually need up to 30′ of space, would you recommend a phased thinning approach? When thinning, should one pull the seedling roots and all (risking disturbing adjacent seedlings meant to be kept), or would you advise to cut them at the base of the trunk)?

    Thank you for your post and I look forward to your input.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your question. Personally, I’m a big fan of letting nature take her course, so I think I’d just let the strongest survive and allow the others to die out … in other words, just leave them be. Not only is it easier, that way you wouldn’t have to worry about disturbing the roots of the ones that make it.

      Reply
  29. we have a 6′ madrone growing out of a very gravely area that will be excavated soon, so is it possible to move such a tree saving it from being slash?

    Reply
    1. As I wrote, “Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well.” It will no doubt die if you try to move it. If you want to save it, don’t excavate.

      Reply
  30. Help! This is the best information I have found about a tree I have always loved and admired from afar. Five years ago we bought a 1950’s home in Edmonds WA. It came with an expanse of lawn and three towering (>100 feet) firs in an “island” surrounded by rocks. There was also a mulched strip between lawn and rockery under which we discovered and removed landscape fabric. On the way to eliminating the lawn, wee contracted with Snohomish Conservation District to install a rain garden to eliminate pooling around our foundation on our nearly level lot. The winter before the rain garden was installed, a madrona sprouted in this in between strip, right where the rain garden was planned to go. We reconfigured the rain garden to skirt around the madrona, however, it is still adjacent to that giant sponges of yummy soil. It had grown rapidly. Too rapidly in my estimation. I sort of propped it up thee second year and now, in its third year it is getting enormous. Great clusters of big healthy leaves on numerous branches. Alas, about two weeks ago it sort oof fell over and the stoutest trunk that is starting to display the characteristic peeling bark, is growing along the ground. The leaf clusters in just the last weeks are turning skyward. I thought maybe if I removed some of the burden of oovergrown side shoots, it might bee relieved of enough weight to stand upright again. I did not want t overdo it, so only trimmed a few. I don’t know what to do. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. It’s difficult for me to comment on something I haven’t seen in person, but I’ll try. I’m also not sure what you mean by growing “too rapidly” and “getting enormous” — is it 5 feet tall? 10 feet? Madrones do grow quite quickly when young, but if it has grown abnormally fast then it could be that the surrounding soil is too rich, but that’s just a guess. If it’s next to a rain garden it could be too wet. Ideally, it would have been moved when it was very small and relocated to a drier area. Personally I would let nature take her course but try to prop it up. If it doesn’t make it, it’s in the wrong spot. You could also try asking the Snohomish Conservation District.

      Reply
    2. My Madrone is also growing fast, more than two feet this year, from 42″ last winter to almost 6′ now! It is also in it’s third full year in our yard. It is not toppling over as is yours so I hope yours finds its way. I’ll be interested to hear more if you should care to post again on Eileen’s page.

      Reply
  31. Eileen” Great article and one of the most comprehensive I’ve read, and I’ve been searching a lot! My madrone is now in its third full year and, in early May, is looking very healthy – almost 8″ of new growth at the top this spring plus 5 shoots coming up from below. So, no water this year, right? Last summer, on a couple of occasions, the very top leaves noticeably wilted (fell over) during hot weather. I took that as a sign to give it some water. The leaves perked up and all seems well. My question for this year is, if that same wilting happens this summer, should I just ignore it? My guess is that your answer will be “yes” but I know I’ll be very anxious. Again, great article. Tom

    Reply
    1. Hi Tom: Chances are, you won’t see that wilting again (I didn’t with mine past the second year, but it’s not in full sun). If you do, it probably won’t hurt it to water deeply once or twice this summer, but you also might want to wait until the next day to decide——it may perk up on its own overnight. Best of luck with your madrone.

      Reply
  32. Thanks for the informative post Eileen. I think I know the answer to this question but I can’t find it specifically stated anywhere: is it possible to grow arbutus in a container? We live in a south facing condo in Vancouver (BC) with a covered balcony that is hot in the summer and receives all day sun. We’d like to plant native plants to bring a few bugs and birds back to the city but are obviously limited in space. Do you think we could keep an arbutus happy in a container? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Hi Matt, unfortunately madrones have deep roots and although one might be OK for awhile (a few years perhaps), its roots would begin to circle the interior of the pot and then it would become ‘root bound’ or ‘pot bound’ and decline. Large trees over a foot tall seldom make it after planting in the ground, so it would die if you later tried to plant it somewhere. You have reminded me that I want to write a post on native gardening in containers. Stay tuned!

      Reply
      1. Thanks for the reply Eileen. And I look forward to that post!

        Reply
  33. Thank you for the long piece advice on Madronas. I love the trees and am three years into my second attempt to grow one. My first attempt was to transplant four or more volunteers that sprouted in some leftover quarter-minus. I pick up the plants as seedings with a shovel and put them down by our bulkhead next to the harbor (we live on Vashon). That was about 6 years ago or more and they all died by the end of the summer (which was exceedingly hot). Also, there is full sun by the bulkhead whereas they sprouted where they only had a few hours of late afternoon sun. For my second attempt, I planted four saplings (about 6 inches high) in Spring that I purchased from Swansons. I put them in soil that I blended as a combination of our sandy till (with cobble sized stones), some compost and some soil I took from two large volunteers elsewhere on the property. I put them on a drip every three days from July to early September. I think three plants made it a year and two more died the next year. My survivor is about two and a half feet tall and seemed quite robust until this last Fall. Foolishly, I put some compost on the ground around the tree thinking it might help the soil over time. Obviously, I’ve read that they like well-drained rocky soil (we have an old gravel pit on the island where they are abundant), so that was surely a mistake. In early winter, the tree started developing leaf death low on the main stalk and it has been working its way up that stalk and out onto the three or so branches. The dead leaves are still attached. Should I remove them? Today, I scraped away all of the compost from around the tree and then put a light coating of some native soil on top just to cover whatever I turned up. Do you have any advice for me? Can I send you a photo or two? I’m hoping the warmer drier weather over the next couple of days will help with some growth. Sorry for the long post, but this is kind of an obsession.

    Reply
    1. Scott, I think most of your concerns are answered in my post. Essentially, provide part shade early on for seedlings/saplings, provide occasional water only as needed (not on a drip schedule and not after a tree is established), and grow them in fast-draining, native soil without any fertilizers (which includes compost, although a small amount of acidic leaf compost or conifer needles on top would be OK since minimal nutrients would be supplied). Re: the dead leaves, it is normal for madrones to lose some of their leaves, and it starts at the innermost part of branches. Usually this happens in summer with 2 or 3-year-old leaves that gradually turn brown and eventually fall off. Just leave them alone; they will fall on their own and then create a leafy mulch on the ground. It’s still too early to expect growth; mine is just producing leaf buds now. Remember that madrones thrive on neglect: little to no water once established, no fertilizer, no soil compaction. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  34. Help!! I have DOZENS AND DOZENS of baby madrona trees sprouting in my yard!
    Somebody please come rescue them!!
    I’m located in Lynnwood
    (425)652-8744

    Reply
      1. Just bought my first Madrone today at UC Davis. I think I already made a mistake, like we all do, want to go for the biggest one. Mine is over a foot tall. My next issue is the soil, I have clay here and there in the yard, but have grown Ceanothus with now problem, so I’m sure there are good spots with little clay. Should I put gravel in the bottom of the hole just to be on the safe side. I’m so excited. I live at 2500 feet in the California foothills but in a region where either all the madrones have been wiped out or where they just haven’t grown naturally. Hope I can change that. Thank you so much for this great information.

        Reply
        1. Congratulations! To see the range of madrone to county level, check out https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ARME. Clay soil may not be a problem but be sure not to water frequently, since clay holds more moisture than most other soils (watering only every 2 weeks or so — underneath the drip line, but well away from the trunk — may help get it established during extended summer drought. Instead of putting gravel only at the bottom of the hole, mix it into the soil, extending a few feet from where it will be planted. Best of luck!

          Reply
  35. Awesome information for us naive and new madrone tree owners! I just purchased a sapling, about 2 feet tall, in a very small pot. I know you indicated to wait until fall, but I’m nervous to leave it in this tiny pot. My gut is telling me to get it the ground. I thought about putting it in a larger pot for a year or two, but from what I’ve read, sounds like it’s best if I plant in the ground. Any advice you could provide is appreciated! I’m super excited to see this little guy grow!

    Reply
    1. Two feet tall — ooooh … I hope it will be OK! I would get in the ground now, before it gets any bigger (and water it with some rainwater if you have any, rather than ice cold tap water). If it were smaller I’d say repot it, but I think if you repot this one it will be more sensitive to relocation later. Best of luck!

      Reply
  36. Thank you for the quick reply. After reading about another Gardener’s experience, I like your idea to plant now. He said he had better luck with 3-inch starts than he did with larger saplings. Plus the soil in my yard is rockier and faster draining than what I put in the pot.

    Reply
    1. Yes, as I wrote, no more than a foot tall; it’s possible your 3-inchers could grow that much the first year. Don’t be afraid to water them the first summer when it’s very warm, but allow them to dry out between waterings. It sounds like your soil will be optimal but you might want to check the pH … they like it a little acidic. I put a layer of Doug-fir needles and such on the soil around mine.

      Reply
  37. Thank you so much for this information! I just bought little 3-inch bare-root starts from our county’s soil and water conversation agency’s native sale. I put them in 1-gallon pots. Should I keep them in the pots until Fall? Thanks much.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for your question, Carol. Bare root madrones — that is daring, since they can’t tolerate root disturbance. But hopefully yours will be fine. I’m tempted to tell you to get them in the ground now, so that the roots won’t be disturbed again in the fall. But since you’ve already got them in pots (in quick-draining soil, hopefully) then it may be best to plant in fall, being extra careful with the plants when you do. Here’s an option if you have a lot of them: you could experiment … keep a few in pots for fall planting and plant a few now. Hope that helps and best of luck with them!

      Reply

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