Recently, my family and I took a trip to Apple Hill. The fall colors were at their best – nearly rivaling the beauty of the East Coast of the United States in autumn.
The rolling hills featured numerous shades of yellows, oranges, reds and even bronzes. One of the places we stopped had quite a variety of plants. I was instantly attracted to the blueberries. They were growing so happily in a tall hedge about four feet high. The fall leaves were gorgeous shades of bronze.
The kids were happily picking apples from some nearby trees, when I encountered a tree I’d never seen before. The owner of the orchard said it was a Madrone. This specimen was at least 40 feet tall with long, bright, shiny green leaves. The branches and trunk were a striking red color – not the mahogany color of a Manzanita trunk, but red! This tree had a wonderfully gnarled base with unusually twisted branches. As I stood gazing up at this beauty, I heard, “Mom,there you are!” Needless to say, once again, I’d drifted away from everyone else because of a plant.
Upon returning home, I had to find out more about this Madrone tree. The Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is native to the coastal ranges from British Columbia to Southern California. The description read that it is occasionally found in the middle elevations of the Sierra Nevada. With all of our hiking and biking in the Sierra, I’d never seen this gorgeous tree.
The Madrone will grow to near 100 feet with a broad round shape. The reddish bark peels off in thin flakes revealing a wonderful trunk and branches.
Spring time brings clusters of whitish or pink, bell-shaped flowers. It seems that the Madrone is not easy – in fact can be downright difficult to grow outside their native area. They require fast drainage, non-alkaline soil and water. Not like my hardpan clay yard.
While reading about the Madrone tree, I discovered its relative is the “strawberry tree” (Arbutus unedo). I‘d seen this tree 20 years earlier, but no one knew what it was. It’s an evergreen shrub/tree with red bark, native to southern Europe and Ireland. The most interesting part of this tree is the clusters of orangey-red fruit hanging from the branches. At this time of year, they look like “crystalline” red ornaments. The strawberry tree has slow- to moderate-growth and grows from 8 to 35 feet with equal spread. It has clusters of whitish to greenish-white flowers in spring and dark green, red-stemmed leaves all year. The strawberry tree can be easily trained to a multi-branched vase-like shape. Best of all, this tree needs little water once it’sestablished.
My local nursery had several Arbutus unedo’s available. The one I bought had the fruit already on it. I carefully peeled off the outer “crystals” to reveal the center red fruit. The red fruit was actually quite sweet. Both my chubby horsey and I agree that this tree is a beautiful and a yummy addition to the yard.
Michelle Schlegel is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.