THE PACIFIC MADRONE IN THE SALISH SEA ECOSYSTEM

— WHERE AND WHY

by Gerald Young, Summer 2020
Photos by Gerald Young except as noted
The Pacific madrone is commonly seen on bluffs. Photo by John F. Williams
The Pacific madrone is commonly seen on bluffs. Photo by John F. Williams

THE PACIFIC MADRONE IN THE SALISH SEA ECOSYSTEM

— WHERE AND WHY

by Gerald Young, Summer 2020

Photos by Gerald Young except as noted

Growing up, I knew the Pacific madrone as the laurel tree, discovering abruptly in a college tree identification class that it was Arbutus menziesii Pursh. Long known, admired, and utilized by indigenous people, the madrona was identified for Europeans in the Salish Sea area by Archibald Menzies, on May 2, 1792, on the southwest shore of Discovery Bay. Sources differ as to the exact spot Menzies walked ashore. As Highway 101 turns north along the bay’s southwestern shore, watch for the exit on the right to Old Gardiner Road. In the less than two miles on Gardiner to the Worldmark Hotel (where you can turn back onto 101), you will see lots of lovely madronas, though no massive old ones. For madrona lovers though, you’ve touched an historic place.

Others reading this might call it Pacific madrone or madrona or madroño, and in Canada everyone uses the genus name: it’s simply ‘the Arbutus.’ In the Salish Sea ecosystem, ‘madrona’ in Washington State and ‘Arbutus’ in British Columbia (and in science) are most common.

There’s also another article in this issue about the Pacific madrone. It’s called Hardwood and Winter Leaves.

the where and the why

The Pacific madrone appears in southwestern British Columbia and threads a narrow band through Washington, Oregon, and most of the length of California—from the Bute Inlet/Seymour Narrows to Mount Palomar. Many argue it is strictly a coastal tree, and it is in British Columbia, where it is said to be generally confined to within about five miles of salt water. But in the three American states, it can be found much farther inland. In the southeast part of the Salish watershed, a ‘spot’ distribution exists southeast of Mount Rainer, sixty or so miles from the nearest sea water in Commencement Bay.

The distribution of every organism depends on its ‘fit’ with its surroundings, and those can and do change, from dramatically sudden to slow change over long periods. Madronas are adaptive trees, as demonstrated by its stretched-out latitudinal distribution (perhaps the longest of any tree in North America). You often hear the word ‘tough’; and they are—deeply and widely rooted into those cliff ecosystems, they can withstand strong westerlies (though the less frequent drying easterlies can cause some desiccation).

Click on any of the small photos to see them larger.

Adaptive yes, but also vulnerable, and that also affects where and how madronas live. They are not very frost resistant. They reach for the sun, yet overexposure can cause sunscald to their thin bark. They like to live where we humans like to live, so development is a factor in their distribution, and even to their abrupt disappearance. Development also leads to increased stress for those remaining trees. Their thin skin makes them extremely susceptible to fire, and wildfires have been more numerous and more destructive in recent years, the ‘new normal’ along the tree’s entire range. Yes, vulnerable—in the short term. After fire has burned their trunks—and those of most or all neighboring species—the madrona comes roaring back, responding quickly with numerous green sprouts from many nodes on the burl at the bottom, holding always the promise of new, vigorous trees.

As we all labor under the global threat of the latest virus, think about how many pathogens can compromise the human body. The same is true of plants. Some twenty different fungus species can have adverse effects on the madrona. Different fungus species attack different parts of the madrona: root rot, basal canker, brown top rot, twig dieback, leaf spot, even heartwood rot. Any of these issues can cause stress to the tree, can weaken it, and a few can kill it. Insects are much less of a problem, but can again cause stress and can reduce the allure of a tree often most valued for its beauty. The main culprits are fall webworm, western tent caterpillar, aphids, leaf miners, and wood borers. The more stressed the tree, the more often the work of such parasites results in tree death, resulting in a reduction of madrona populations.

Below ground, however, the madrona holds a secret ‘positive’ fungal weapon. In a revealing recent study (Kennedy, 2012), the madrona has been identified as the ‘hub’ of a network of mycorrhizal fungi shared with trees nearby, including members of the Pinus family such as Douglas fir; the madronas are good neighbors. The ability of the madrona to persistently maintain roots and to sprout stems following disturbances plays a definitive role in sustaining a diverse mycelial network that 1) is necessary for forest regeneration and the maintenance of ecosystem diversity, and 2) continues to provide access to nutrients and water for both the madrona and its neighbors. I have seen rare madrona groves poisoned or girdled to reserve the space for more valuable firs or pine, and removed without recognition of the tree’s role in forest regeneration.

For more about mycorrhizal fungi, see Issue 5 of Salish Magazine, or use our search function above for “mycorrhizal”.
Large madrona in the open at Fort Worden Historical State Park in Port Townsend.

are the madronas dying out?

The tempting answer: no. I do believe the madrona is tough and adaptable. But, over quite a few years now, citizens and scientists alike have worried that question, especially in the madrona’s northern range. Among the scientists is Marianne Elliot, who has researched and written widely about the fungi that attack madronas; she believes that this beloved species is increasingly stressed and therefore becoming increasingly susceptible to disease. Elliot also recognized back in the 1990s the possible role of mycorrhizal fungi in the madrona’s resistance to decline.

Now, and well into the future, the madrona must deal with a rapidly changing climate, changes caused by human activities. Among the few widely agreed upon truths are that we can expect extremes and unpredictability, which can of course work to the advantages of some plants, and to the detriment of others. A recent study (Hamann, 2006) predicted a dramatic change in the madrona’s northern range, pointedly in British Columbia. The change, the authors claimed, would involve a dramatic expansion of the madrona’s range as the planet warms. Something to think about.

Looking across the tops of Pacific madrone trees down onto Fidalgo Bay from Cap Sante Park, Anacortes, WA.

now enjoined

This tough, stubborn tree probably doesn’t need our help to survive. But decline in some areas has been noted and measured. Let’s do what we can to slow or stop it. Here are three suggestions that any reader of this article can do. Do them for the tree, for yourself, and for us, so that we can enjoy it longer, because it’s beautiful, and it’s here. For now.

learn

Read more about the madrona in the Salish Sea ecosystem, and along its full range. Begin with the references at the end of this article, then research on the internet, and delve into the riches of the great libraries accessible to citizens of the Salish Sea area.

plant

Assuming certain conditions, plant it where you live. Get permission to plant it in your community—libraries, schools, parks, etc., though you may have to personally care for them until established. Then, encourage benign neglect. On the island where I live, surrounded by the Salish Sea, many so-called strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) have been planted as ornamentals. The various A. unedo cultivars are nice trees but can’t hold a candle to the native madrona. If David Douglas can get seeds all the way from the Pacific Northwest to Europe, where they were planted and grew, then the same can be accomplished here. Perhaps start a madrona planting and maintenance program where you live.

See some tips for growing madronas in the article “Hardwood and Winter Leaves”

engage

Get involved with a local group working to maintain this ‘tree for all seasons.’ For example, you can join and get involved with the Arbutus ARME, an initiative using citizen science participants to collaboratively advance knowledge that is important to conserving the Pacific madrone.

where to see the madrona near the salish sea

This image of an iNaturalist.org map shows locations where the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) has been observed. On the actual web site, the map can be zoomed in or out to see more detail or broader scope.

Pacific madrone trees are not difficult to find in the Salish Sea region. As a matter of fact the online iNaturalist map shows many places where they can be seen. iNaturalist is is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Here are just a few examples of places where you can see them:

In Washington: Port Townsend, with trees growing all through a brushy area north of the mill, and with a huge madrona in the open at Fort Worden. At Discovery Park in Seattle. On Maury Island Marine Park. On Orcas Island.

In British Columbia: On southeastern Vancouver Island just about any coastal area will feature splendid Arbutus trees, but perhaps especially in these regional parks: Witty’s Lagoon R. P., Roche Cove R.P., and East Sooke R.P. Thetis Island claims to have the largest arbutus in B.C.

Gerald (Jerry) Young grew up in southern Oregon, in the woods on the north edge of the Klamath Knot, the vibrant heart of the area where the madrona is at its best. Most of his career, in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University, was spent east of the Cascade Mountains so for a long while the connection was broken. Now retired and living on Bainbridge Island, he has reconnected and for the last decade or so has immersed himself in reading about the genus Arbutus, of which the madrona is one species. He has learned enough to know what he doesn’t know.

Table of Contents, Issue #8, Summer 2020

Bigleaf Maple

Bigleaf Maple

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Poetry-8

Poetry-8

Poetry Summer 2020Photo by Sue HylenOde to Madrona Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, WA 2019 by Nancy Taylor You stand alone with eight straight trunkseach in the cross-hairs of the sun,as though those parts signed a non-compete clause. You rise proud, king of...

Hardwood & Winter Leaves

Hardwood & Winter Leaves

by Kristopher Clark, Summer 2020Photo by Kris ClarkPhoto by Kris Clarkby Kristopher Clark, Summer 2020Walking through a Pacific Northwest forest is unlike any other walk in the nation. Trees of all kinds drape their enormous arms, ferns blanket the ground, and moss...

Red Alder

Red Alder

by Thomas & Sara Noland Summer 2020 Photos by Thomas Noland except as notedSpring sunlight illuminates the new leaves of a red alder. The leaves have deep veins and scalloped edges.Spring sunlight illuminates the new leaves of a red alder. The leaves have deep...

Factories Underfoot

Factories Underfoot

by Adelia Ritchie, Summer 2020Photo by John F. WilliamsPhoto by John F. Williamsby Adelia Ritchie, Summer 2020  What do we mean when we say that some plants are “nitrogen fixers”? No, it doesn’t mean that they are repairing nitrogen! Let’s take a moment to get a grip...

In the Company of Alders

In the Company of Alders

by Phoebe Goit Summer 2020Photo by John F. WilliamsPhoto by John F. Williamsby Phoebe Goit, Summer 2020[Some of the more technical terms in this article are indicated by orange text. If you hover your cursor over the [su_tooltip position="north" size="1"...

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FIND OUT MORE

Adams, A.B., editor. The Decline of the Pacific Madrone: Current Theory and Research. Seattle, WA: Save Magnolia’s Madrones/Center for Urban Horticulture, 1999. 146 pages.

Bazar, Ron. “Discover the Beauty of the Arbutus Tree and Its Exotic Wood Carved Art!” plus many other items in the form of extensive commentary, photographs, poetry, and art and carved utensils produced by Bazar from found wood of Arbutus menziesii. Bazar’s home and studio (Arbutus Arts) are on Cortes Island in British Columbia near the northern reach of the Pacific madrone’s range: https://www.arbutusarts.com/Ron-Bazar.html. Enthusiastic and informative about his favorite tree. Definitely worth a visit.

Hamann, Andreas, and Tongli Wang. “Potential Effects of Climate Change on Ecosystem and Tree Species Distribution in British Columbia,” Ecology, Vol. 87, No. 11, 2006, pages 2773-2786.

Kennedy, Peter G., Dylan P. Smith, Tom R. Horton, and Randy J. Molina. “Arbutus menziesii (Ericaceae) Facilitates Regeneration Dynamics in Mixed Evergreen Forests by Promoting Mycorrhizal Fungal Diversity and Host Connectivity,” American Journal of Botany, October 1, 2012.

Lyons, C. P., and Bill Merilees. Trees, Shrubs & Flowers to Know in Washington & British Columbia. Auburn, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1996. 376 pages.

McDonald, Philip M., and John C. Tappeiner, II. “Arbutus menziesii Madrone,” EOL—Encyclopedia of Life, material “automatically assembled from many different content providers.” Probably the best single source I know. Online at: http://eol.org/pages/582128/details (11/14/2014).

Nam Chul Jung & Yutaka Tamai (2012) Ecological role and modification of the plant and fungal cell structure in the interface between host root and ectomycorrhizal hyphae, Mycology, 3:1, 24-35, DOI: 10.1080/21501203.2011.654351