Flora Fact: Appealing Twist
With writhing limbs and peeling bark, the madrone is easy to spot.
By Karen H. Clary
One of the most exotic native trees found in Texas is the madrone. First, you’ll notice the madrone’s vivid red peeling bark. Then you’ll marvel at the twisting branches, each one seemingly determined to out-twist the others all the way up to the top of the tree. The fall and winter months are the best times to see the Texas madrone shedding its papery bark, as it cracks and peels to make room for next year’s growth.
Madrones can be seen on hiking trails in Garner State Park and Pedernales Falls State Park. Out west, they grow in Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Although Texans refer to it as the Texas madrone and once claimed it as a unique species, science now tells us that “our” madrone is part of a wide-ranging species that grows as far south as Guatemala and as far west as New Mexico. The species name, xalapensis, refers to the town of Xalapa, capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz, where the type specimen was collected. The genus name, Arbutus, means “strawberry tree” in Latin, perhaps referring to the sweet, edible, strawberry-colored fruits that grow on it.
The fragrant, urn-shaped flowers are typical of members of the heath family (Ericaceae) and are a useful clue for identification. Madrone flowers bloom in spring; fruits mature in the fall. The leaves are evergreen. The ripe berries are favored by many animals, especially birds. Humans make good use of most parts of the tree, including the fruit, wood and bark. Matt Turner, in his book Remarkable Plants of Texas, tells how the bark, high in the tannins that make it red, was used in the tanning industry.
In Texas, madrones grow on wooded rocky hills and mountain slopes and in canyons in the Edwards Plateau and the Trans-Pecos. Their distribution is spotty; they grow in small clusters.
You may have noticed that madrones aren’t popular landscaping plants. That’s because they are tricky to grow in the nursery and have very low transplant survival rates outside of their native habitat.
Unfortunately, Texas madrone is becoming increasingly rare in the wild. Older, larger trees are dying, and few seedlings and young trees exist. Seedlings are particularly rare wherever livestock, mainly goats and cattle, are present, presumably because of the combined effects of browsing and trampling. Landowners can protect young trees by keeping grazers away.
Bob Harms of the University of Texas Plant Resources Center in Austin provides expert advice on propagating madrones in the wild, using his 30 years of experience with madrones growing in Central Texas. Harms found that seeds planted close to a mother tree tend to survive well and that ashe junipers are important nurse trees. Visit w3.biosci.utexas.edu/prc/DigFlora/ARXA/ARXA-restoration.html to read more about growing madrones.