Anyone unfamiliar with coastal plants of the Pacific shoreline will surely be intrigued when they first see what looks like a tropical tree growing along rocky coasts. Ranging anywhere from 15 - 100 feet tall with smooth bark that peels away in sheets, the madrone tree is a signature species of the Pacific Northwest. The native range of the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), also called madrona, arbutus, or strawberry tree, spans from Northern California to British Columbia, thriving in areas with wet, mild winters and cool, dry summers. The species is a broadleaf evergreen, meaning it keeps its leaves through all four seasons. Madrones boast delicate white flowers in the spring and red-orange berries in the fall to attract wildlife year round.
Various parts of the madrone tree have been harvested for consumption, to make products, and for medicinal purposes for as long as people have been living on the islands. The berries are edible for human consumption but reported to be rather tasteless. Indigenous peoples consume the berries in a wide variety of ways, eating them fresh, dried, or by making ciders. One of the most remarkable qualities of the madrone tree is its bark, which peels away in large papery flakes to reveal an attractive, satiny green surface beneath that darkens over time to a deep rust color. Some Indigenous groups harvest the bark for medicinal purposes, making topical solutions and teas to aid everything from sores and small wounds to upset stomachs and colds.
You might be tempted to plant a madrone tree in your yard because of their unique, colorful appearance. While it is possible to host one in your garden, the trees are notoriously difficult to plant and support. Madrones usually rely on fungal filaments in the soil that work with surrounding organisms to aid in their growth. They grow best on dry, rocky slopes and bluffs -- so the poorer the soil conditions, the better. If you’re lucky enough to get one established, though, madrones can bring a variety of life to your yard. The branches grow small white flowers in the spring months that are very fragrant and attract pollinators. In the cooler and wetter conditions of fall, madrones grow clusters of vibrant red-orange berries that are popular with mammals and birds. When the berries eventually dry up and fall off the trees, they sport hooked barbs that attach to migrating animals passing through and the seeds are widely dispersed. While madrone trees dot the shoreline all around the San Juan Islands, an exceptional place to view them up close is at Obstruction Pass State Park on Orcas Island with over one mile of public saltwater shoreline.