If you live in Southwestern British Columbia, no doubt you’ll remember your first encounter with the arbutus. It makes a captivating first impression, and with its multiple trunks, peeling red bark, and rhododendron like leaves, this is a tree that compels you to look skyward at its twisting limbs!
I’m talking about Arbutus menzieszi, named in honour of renowned Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who first reported it on none other than Captain George Vancouver’s voyage of exploration, circa 1792. This particular member of the arbutus family is native to the Pacific Coast of North America, and can be found as far south as Northern California, and as far north as British Columbia. In the United States, it’s more commonly called a madrone, or madrona. It’s one of twelve recognized species worldwide in the arbutus family.
Here in British Columbia, this graceful, and adaptive tree can usually be found sharing the forest with Garry oak, Douglas Fir, and to a lesser extent, Western red cedar and Western hemlock. In seaside areas, it’s a signature tree. Who among us has not seen a rocky coastline on the Salish Sea adorned with an arbutus or two?
The bark of the arbutus is particularly distinct. It is deep red orange in colour, and as the tree ages it peels away naturally, exposing a palette of greens, silver grays, and yellows beneath. In spring, it has an understated bloom of little bell shaped flowers, and in autumn, a crop of bright, red berries. The tree is evergreen, usually under thirty metres in height, and some trunks attain a diameter of up to eight feet, surprisingly! Once its berries dry and shrivel, tiny hooked barbs are exposed that catch on your clothes. This aids the tree in propagation, as in this way animals move its seed to other locations. The arbutus is a fine example of the manner in which nature takes advantage of the smallest possible opportunities!
The berries, by the way, are edible for humans, and an important food source for birds as well. First Nations people also used the bark and leaves medicinally to treat a variety of ailments. Before you think about gorging yourself as you might on blueberries, though, you might want to remember that overeating them can cause stomach cramping! In cases of absolute emergency, the slow burning wood of arbutus trees also makes a very efficient campfire, and burns exceedingly hot.
The future survival of the tree is challenged on some fronts, as changes to its available habitat have been mounting for some time now, and its numbers are in decline. Chief among these threats is development, as the lands it grows upon is often prized real estate. In places like West Vancouver and Victoria, for example, great stands of these trees have been razed to build subdivisions. In more recent times, there has been an increasing call to protect arbutus trees, as they are not only very aesthetic but now in short supply.
Interruption of natural fire cycles has also been an impediment to arbutus propagation. It has always depended on fires to open up space for its growth, as it grows more quickly than its competitors in its native forests. The arbutus itself is also very fire resistant, which gives it yet another advantage over other trees. In today’s world, fires are not going to be allowed to burn near coastal and residential areas, especially in such close proximity to civilization.
There is also a blight that has begun to afflict the arbutus more frequently. It’s a normally occurring fungus called Neofusicoccum arbuti, and it can cause limbs to die and blister or simply make the tree vulnerable to extreme heat. If you pay close attention, you can see evidence of its presence on many healthy trees, but then there are the trees that don’t survive it. It’s uncertain whether or not this problem will expand, but it has unquestionably been contributing to the general decline of the arbutus population.
Since I’ve moved to Vancouver Island, I’ve taken a strong liking to the arbutus, which is present in much higher numbers here, and on the neighbouring Gulf Islands. It seems to be a tree that many people appreciate, in fact. When talk turns to preservation, however, not too many are aware of where the grandest specimens are.
In my travels, I’ve already made of acquaintance of more than a few, and I’m always on the lookout for more. There’s even British Columbia’s largest specimen to see, which calls nearby Nanoose Bay its home, just a twenty minute drive from where I live. That’s a tale that I hope to be telling you someday. Meanwhile, the hunt for the next champion arbutus continues!