The Rustic Charm of the Arbutus Tree

 

If you live in Southwestern British Columbia, no doubt you’ll remember your first encounter with the Arbutus. It makes quite 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!

70029456_3100910626620422_3852554225351393280_o
This tree grows near the summit of Notch Hill in Nanoose Bay
77390126_3251957084849108_2080561550652866560_o
The bark of the Arbutus tree

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.

57253353_2870436099667877_6884681491423428608_o
One of the many beautiful spring wildflowers you sometimes find in the understory an Arbutus-Douglas fir forest. This is Henderson’s Shooting Star
53317828_2777341775643977_2716220906643914752_o
The arbutus always makes a grand first impression, like this one on Maple Mountain near Duncan
52961188_2777341665643988_8707476383623806976_o
Or this one on Extension Ridge in Nanaimo

 

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?

77140967_3251957194849097_2397280741231689728_o
Beautiful Arbutus grove near Enos Lake in Nanoose Bay
85172753_3420579247986890_2457222876772696064_o
Where breaks or cuts occur, the Arbutus will often show scars
78758886_3251956848182465_3786833726709694464_o
Lost Lake in Nanaimo

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!

50628546_2716677095043779_4955736276343980032_o
The Arbutus usually has multiple trunks
68928352_3039646232746862_5393966766105821184_o
The multiple trunks take on many configurations
85150235_3420579014653580_1953988915979354112_o
Arbutus leaves at Jack Point Park near Duke Point Ferry Terminal
74917385_3189010611143756_7821642093243138048_o
The delicate forest floor in an Arbutus- Garry Oak ecosystem supports incredible biodiversity

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.

53194190_2777345425643612_8330295808842792960_o
The tree is very opportunistic and is capable of growing in very little soil
59361946_2870435646334589_6252730457440387072_o
Camas blooms in Arbutus- Garry Oak forest near Cedar
78538429_3251957274849089_3659867814765789184_o
A handsome stand of Arbutus near Nanaimo’s Linley Valley
67132287_3006578432720309_1955553705709273088_o
Typical terrain of an Arbutus stand, on Maple Mountain near Duncan

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 also  in short supply.

17545429_1944815522229944_5491868228441423661_o
Forests like this one in the Nelson Creek area were once common in West Vancouver, but much of the land they once occupied has fallen to development
65820097_2973720852672734_5258265728200474624_o
This tree on a lot in Nanaimo isn’t likely to survive much longer. Just this summer a house was being built here.

 

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.

57289497_2845535208824633_3787598922378117120_o
Arbutus and Douglas firs at Moorecroft Park in Nanoose Bay
78944090_3261116170599866_1568574403560603648_o
Biggs Park, near Cedar

 

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 as to whether or not this problem will expand, but it has unquestionably been contributing to the general decline of the Arbutus population.

79126692_3285768151468001_1410638027906088960_o
Massive Arbutus trunk in Joan Point Park, near Cedar
56213740_2817703164941171_3277061945223544832_o
Mt Tzouhalem, near Duncan

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.

 

55906356_2817705641607590_3736466073998852096_o
My daughter and the biggest Arbutus I’ve seen so far, at Nanoose Bay’s Beachcomber Park

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 B.C.’s record tree, which calls nearby Nanoose Bay its home, and that’s just a twenty minute drive from where I live. I’ll need to get permission from a local woodlot owner just to see it, and that’s a tale that I hope to be telling you someday. The hunt for the next champion Arbutus continues!

50437937_2716676371710518_1307505245969973248_o
Will you be the one to find the next champion tree? Keep your eyes open, you never know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s