The madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) also goes by other names, including Pacific madrone, madrona, madrono, bearberry and strawberry tree. It is a member of the Heath family (Ericaceae).
The madrone is native to the Pacific Coast of North America, growing from northern California to southern British Columbia. The eastern Mediterranean and southern Europe are also home to the Arbutus genus.
In 1769, Father Juan Crespi, diarist of the Portola Expedition (to find sites for Franciscan missions in California) dubbed the tree “Madrono." His inspiration came from the European species of the strawberry tree, which also had red berries.
British botanist Archibald Menzies (1754 to 1842) gave the species its name, Arbutus, after the Latin for strawberry tree.
Madrone trees can be considered as very hospitable trees. They provide perches and nesting places for a wide variety of bird species.
Their reddish-orange berries are food for wildlife and birds. Woodpeckers in particular favor the gnarled, mature trunks of madrone trees.
These broad-leafed evergreen trees with large, leathery leaves can grow to heights of 30 to 70 feet in a wide array of soil and environmental conditions.
The Pacific madrone served many purposes in providing for early Native Americans in California. They gathered madrone berries as fresh fruit and also to make unfermented cider. Cooked and dried berries were other options.
Dried madrone berries created unusual necklaces too. Madrone berries and leaves made lovely ornaments.
The leaves had medicinal uses, for stomachaches, cramps and skin sores, among other ailments. Tree bark became tannic tea, and even translated into an astringent infusion.
Leather tanners discovered that the bark of the madrone tree could be very useful to them.
The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is native to Europe, although today it grows in the United States too. It inspired the naming of the madrone.
This multitrunk evergreen can reach heights of about 20 feet.
“Unedo” means “I eat (only) one” which may refer to trying the berries. These berries take about a year to ripen. Some describe the berries as bland, though Europeans make fermented drinks from them.
The Texas madrone tree (Arbutus xalapensis), is also called madrono, naked Indian, lady’s leg and Texas arbutus. It grows in the Trans-Pecos and the Edwards Plateau of Texas.
This evergreen’s springtime clusters of white flowers are typical of trees in the Heath family. The exfoliating bark of the Texas madrone is one of its outstanding features.
Madrone trees create an attractive landscape picture. However, they can also serve a very useful function by preventing erosion. This is because they have a widely spreading root system that can restore order very speedily by re-sprouting.