With a rented camera lens in hand and time running out, Maret convinced her dad and I to go out to Alyard Farms for a photo shoot. It was there that I was reminded of the beauty of the Arbutus trees.
Origins of the Arbutus Trees
In the USA the arbutus is commonly known as Madrone. Arbutus is Latin for “strawberry tree”, likely for the tree’s bright red berries. Also for its resemblance to the strawberry tree from Europe (Arbutus unedo). The species menziesii is named after a Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies. He first described the tree in 1792 during a Pacific coast expedition with Captian Vancouver.
Arbutus trees are found in Mexico and Central America along with the west coast of USA and southern BC, giving it one of the longest north-south ranges of any North American tree.
The arbutus menziesii is found as far north as Quadra Island (Campbell River) and Discovery Passage and on the west coast of Vancouver Island at the head of Nootka Sound along with bits of the lower mainland. South of the border, arbutus is more common and occupies a wider range of habitats. It may grow at elevations of 1200 metres or more.
Arbutus is Canada’s only native broad-leafed evergreen tree. It usually resides less than 10km from the rugged Pacific coastline. It is usually found on exposed rocky bluffs overlooking the ocean. However, it can grow well on deeper soils and has been found along the dry bluffs of lake edges, such as Comox Lake and the Buttle Lake corridor in Strathcona Park. It needs little in the way of tender loving care, enjoying excessively drained sites and rocky soils of coarse minerals with lots of sunlight. Arbutus can easily survive both prolonged summer dry spells and gale force winds. It doesn’t fair well, however, in an overly wet winter that leads to fungi growth on their leaves.
Arbutus is often found growing along side Douglas-fir and Garry oak trees, and is associated with shrubs like oceanspray, Oregon grape and baldhip rose.
Arbutus trees don’t lose their leaves in winter. They are the largest members of the heath family, also related to rhododendrons, blueberries, kinnikinnick, manzanita, heather and salal. They can grow up to 30 m tall with crooked or leaning trunks. The trunks divide into a number of crooked branches, giving them such unique features that often show up in artists pictures and paintings. The main stems are rigid and seldom break even surviving the harshest west coast storms. However the heavy wet snow can be too heavy for the branches to withstand.
New growth leaves are coarse & green, almost waxy to the feel; oval to egg-shaped. The dark green leathery leaves are shiny above, and whitish beneath. They readily shed rainwater. Older leaves turn yellow and then brown before falling to the ground. Being an evergreen, the tree sheds older leaves all the time. They don’t decompose easily, and therefore if you’re wanting to use as a mulch (or intend to compost them) they should be ground up first.
Broken branches creating natural cavities are snatched up for nest-building by tree swallows. And the rare Christmas naucoria (a dark red mushroom of late fall/early winter) have been seen growing on the hollowed & rotting centres of ancient arbutus trees not far from us, in Metchosin.
Arbutus trees will re-sprout their crowns if they are burned in a fire, giving them a competitive edge over the conifers they share the forest with.
In late April to May arbutus is covered in clusters of drooping, frothy whitish-yellow blooms that smell like honey, and are very attractive to rufous hummingbirds, bees and other insects.
In late summer and fall, orange to red berries about 1cm across are produced, each with a bumpy surface texture very much like an orange rind. Although the berries are inedible for human consumption, they are loved by birds such as the waxwings, robins, woodpeckers, thrushes and band-tailed pigeons, along with deer, bears and mice.
When the berries shrivel they grow barbs that they use to attach themselves to animals for seed dispersement.
Arbutus trees are most identifiable by their bark. Magnificent from a distance…nemesis for those who have this paper-peel littering their yards! The bark is very smooth and red. It curls up and eventually falls off to reveal the new greenish layer underneath.
Supposedly the arbutus was very important to First Nations people. The Saanich used the bark & leaves medicinally: a remedy for colds, sore throats, stomach troubles, and tuberculosis. Often the bark was brewed into a tea to be consumed.
The reddish bark was boiled up and used as a food dye. Its very rich in a substance used for tanning hides.
A Salish legend claims the arbutus was an anchor during the Great Flood; another legend claims that if the arbutus was to disappear completely, the Earth would fly apart.
Arbutus wood is very heavy and dense, weighing as much as 44 lbs per square foot. It is brittle and tends to crack and warp easily when it is dried. Because of the gnarly growth of the arbutus it has not been cut for timber. The hard wood with its beautiful grain has been used for woodworking and carving. Artisans display and sell their creations at markets, galleries and studios.
Arbutus are fighting a losing battle here in BC, with development and urbanization. Where people find it desirable to live and develop businesses is the same place these arbutus trees like to grow. Everybody wants a beautiful ocean view, right!!
Another concern for the arbutus here is disease. Their decline is likely the result of cumulative factors, including environmental conditions and pathogens. Many of our arbutus trees are suffering from different forms of fungus including root rot. Once one pathogen gets introduced to the environment, other opportunistic pathogens take advantage of a stressed tree. It’s possible that somewhat-successful management of fire has disturbed the natural cycle of things, and allowed pathogens such as Nattrassia mangiferae, Fusicoccum aesculi and Armillaria to proliferate. Scientists also believe that unusually dry winters are a contributing factor.
But this one night we shared the same space, peacefully. We marvelled at their beauty, and the view they chose along this stretch of Vancouver Island. And we’re hoping these gnarly giants will get an upper-hand and grow here for millennia.
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