Are the Madrona Trees Dying?


Last August I posted an article about a very special tree that grows in the Pacific Northwest.  I noted that it doesn't follow any of the tree rules.  This is the Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii), as we call them around here.  In California they say Madrone and in Canada, Arbutus.  As I have pointed out previously, I practice a kind of "serendipity gardening."  Along with the plants I purchase in nurseries, I often let things grow that spring up on their own.  I am fortunate to have had several Madronas come up in my yard.  My driveway is lined with them, and this has become a very special feature.  They cannot be transplanted and the Sunset Western Garden Book notes, "if you live in Madrone country and have a tree in your garden, treasure it."

In a local news feed that I follow, I was startled to read that hundreds of Madronas are dying in the nearby San Juan Islands.  The problem has been attributed to a fungal disease that has thought to have gained a foothold in this year's unusually cold and wet weather.  The trees like it warm and dry and prefer to grow in rocky soil that drains quickly.  I have that in abundance, believe me.  The soil in my yard is called Vashon Till, left here by the last glaciers between 10 and 18 thousand years ago.  It is composed of big rocks, gravel, sand and clay.  Gardening in it has been a challenge, but the native stuff seems to like it.

This young Madrona came up in a perennial bed.  While the
perennials struggle in the dry, rocky conditions here, the
Madrona feels right at home.
I was concerned when the leaves on several of my trees here on Fidalgo had died and turned black over the winter.  You can see some of this in the top-left photo.  I also photographed the problem at Heart Lake last February, in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.  Reading of the plight of the San Juan trees added to my concern.  Fortunately, my trees seem to be recovering.  At the Arbutus Blog, Marianne Elliott notes that we have had two very wet years, even here in the rain shadow.  This past winter also gave us many days of sub-freezing temperatures.  Our local trees most likely suffered cold damage.  Normally, the leaves die around August, after the new growth has matured.  Fortunately, my trees are sprouting new growth right now above the dead leaves.

Can you spot the Aphid on the new growth?
A question remains about the odd weather patterns we have been experiencing.  If these persist over the next several years, how long will the Madronas be able to withstand the insults?  When reviewing articles for this post, I was interested to note the mention of how much people adore these trees.  I thought it was just me.  This would be a time to hope that those climate change deniers are right.  Will hoping be enough?  If we continue the pattern of the last few years, blazing summers, frigid winters and higher rainfall than normal, the demise of these beloved trees could be at hand.

Comments

  1. Just found your blog on Wild Pacific Northwest! I also LOVE madrona trees, don't know what it is but these trees are special. I remember them growing along the Sound near my grandparents waterfront home at Brown's Point in north Tacoma. I've heard about a madrona blight for years now, but sad to hear they are dying in larger numbers in the San Juans. The City of Seattle lost several along 8th Avenue NW near where I live in the Ballard Area during the freezes two winters ago. A few trees survived though. Thanks, I love your neck of the woods and try to get up there with my kayak as much as possible (blogged about kayaking out of Bowman Bay last year).

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  2. Beautiful photos of one of my favorite trees, but madrona in the perennial bed looks like it has black vine weevil damage-the bites taken out of the leaves. The weevils hitch a ride home in nursery plant potting soil, then spread quickly through a garden. However, if caught early it is sometimes possible to eradicate them.

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  3. May 2014 - the Arbutus trees on Vancouver Island are still suffering from this blight, or disease, and appears to be spreading. Many on my property, and neighboring lands are showing signs, this spring. I question if it is actually from wet weather, as our winter this year was fairly dry.

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