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The Peeling Tree

With its flaky bark and red berries, the Texas madrone is a rare but remarkable Texas native.

By Rob McCorkle

The first time I saw a Texas madrone tree, I was hiking up a switchback in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas. As my boots wobbled on the rocky path and I looked for a tree branch to grasp should I slip, I noticed a delicate-looking, smooth-skinned tree whose bark had begun flaking away like large patches of sunburned skin, revealing a rust-colored trunk beneath. Its red berries seemed to glow like embers.

Only later did I learn that I had made the acquaintance of Arbutus xalapensis, an unusual tree species found in Texas only in the mountains of West Texas and on the rocky, limestone slopes in pockets of the Texas Hill Country. The Texas madrone (once designated as a separate species, Arbutus texana, or as a variety of A. xalapensis) is one of more than a half-dozen species of madrones found primarily in California, New Mexico, the Mediterranean, Mexico and Guatemala. The Texas version is considered the same species as the Mexican species, which derives its name from the Latin word arbutus, or strawberry tree, and xalapensis, which refers to the Mexican town of Xalapa (Jalapa), capital of the State of Veracruz.

The Texas madrone has been around for thousands of years and is considered by some scientists to be a “relict,” or a species from an earlier time that manages to survive even after the surrounding environment has undergone significant change. While the madrone lacks the status and ubiquity of the pecan – the Texas State Tree — or the stature of the giant live oak, it makes up for its unimpressive size and paucity with an attention-grabbing yet subtle beauty that brightens the woodlands.

The Texas Forest Service’s Big Tree Registry records the state champion Texas madrones as a 27-footer with a 93-inch trunk circumference and 38-foot crown cross spread and a 45-footer with a 70-inch girth and 30-foot crown. Both were recorded in the Chisos Mountains of Brewster County. But most of the typical native species reach no more than 15 to 25 feet in height. The national champion, with a massive 14-foot circumference, grows in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest.

While the madrone’s lantern-shaped flowers and showy fruit dazzle the eye, it is the tree’s thick, papery, peeling bark that is its most distinguishing characteristic, undergoing metamorphoses each year. In their book, Native Texas Plants, Sally and Andy Wasowski note that the change begins each fall, “when old skin peels away to reveal the soft, cream-colored new bark. Color then changes to peach to coral to Indian red to chocolate and then peels away to start the process over again.”

In springtime, blossoms form in clusters of white or pale pink, framed against dark green, leathery foliage. Fall brings forth the tiny orange-red fruit dangling from branches in three-inch clusters, an appetizer difficult for deer, birds and other wildlife to resist.

One of the most intriguing things about the Texas madrone is that it has undergone very little long-term scientific study. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the tree is almost impossible to propagate and has an extremely slow growth rate. It can take a century or more for a Texas Hill Country madrone to reach a mature height of 20 to 25 feet.

Botanically speaking, the madrone is a member of the Heath family, Ericaeae. As such, it is related to blueberries, cranberries and azaleas.

Peter and Marianne Bonenberger run the Bear Spring Blossom Nature Conservancy from their 125-acre rocky top ranch in Pipe Creek in eastern Bandera County. Peter, a retired banker from Germany, and his former schoolteacher wife, Marianne, have become formidable Texas naturalists through 11 years of trial and error. They have succeeded remarkably in restoring their overgrazed and eroded property, just shy of 2,000 feet in altitude, to a semblance of its original state of native grasses and mixed hardwoods. They have cut down numerous cedars (mountain junipers), mulching the wood and spreading it on trails and bare ground to coax native grasses from the caliche soil.

A stroll along the Madrone Trail reveals more than 100 madrone saplings and trees, most thriving beneath or just adjacent to larger cedar trees.

“You never see a young madrone on this ranch under anything but a cedar,” Peter says resolutely. “I have been told that the cedar produces an ashlike fungus just under the soil that the madrone seed needs to germinate. Birds eat the madrone, sit in a juniper and expel the seeds in their droppings.”

For the most part, man has proven an abject failure at reproducing the madrone, although Dorothy Matiza, a nurserywoman in Tarpley, Texas, has reported some success in growing seedlings. Too little water at the outset and too much water later on can spell doom for the finicky native ornamental. To illustrate the point, Bonen-berger points to a lab experiment that was conducted to try to germinate 10,000 madrone seeds. Researchers succeeded in germinating only two seeds. Even if one is successful in germinating and growing a small seedling, chances are good that it will never reach maturity.

To make matters worse for the Texas beauty, it can succumb to a fungus similar to black spot that “scorches” the limbs, blackening them and causing loss of foliage. Some ravaged specimens on the Bonenberger’s ranch, however, have managed to fight back, regenerating new growth from the bottom of the trunk, but the long-term effects are yet to be seen.

Efforts to transplant the Texas madrone have proven dicey, too. It may have to do with the tree’s tiny, fibrous root system. As a result, the Texas madrone remains uncommon in most parts of Texas and next to impossible to buy at a local nursery.

Matt W. Turner of Austin has been studying the ethnobotanical uses of Texas plants and trees for years. He has published academic papers and given numerous public presentations on the subject, as well. In his upcoming book, The Natural History of Texas Native Plants, Turner delves into the various uses of the madrone’s fruit, bark and leaves, mostly by Native Americans such as the Kickapoos. The Kickapoos, he writes, found the fruit when fully ripe to be “sweet and savory” like strawberries. Pima Indians in Chihuahua, Mexico, still eat the berries, which are reportedly rich in vitamin C and zinc.

Turner notes, too, that the wood and bark of the madrone is “heavy, hard, moderately strong and close-grained, but is rather brittle and is not durable.” Nonetheless, he points out that the wood was historically used for tools, mine timbers, stirrups, handles and the like. The Kickapoo make deer calls from the wood of the madrone.

The tree’s striking bark, high in tannins, was at one time valued by the tanning industry, according to Turner. Both leaves and bark also have been used in Mexico as astringents and diuretics, and its bark and roots utilized for dyes.

Volume I of The Useful Wild Plants of Texas (available online at www.usefulwild plants.org) mentions the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, who are said to make tesguino, an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented madrone berries, and to use the tree’s flowers to flavor tortillas.

Other purported Native American uses for the madrone’s wood include bowls, ladles, rollers and balls for women’s running games.

So by any name – and this unusual tree has several of them, including Naked Indian and Lady’s Leg – the Texas madrone warrants more study, protection and greater appreciation.

This native beauty is a true Texas survivor, and those who’ve stumbled upon a madrone in the mountains of West Texas or the western fringes of the Hill Country know that its unique beauty can best be appreciated up close. Take a hike, and see for yourself.

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