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The Madrone tree - Arbutus xalapensis
Visiting the Texas Hill Country gives you the opportunity to see Texas madrone trees.
A madrone is a delicate-looking, smooth-skinned tree. Every year the Madrone's skin is flaking away, because it cannot grow with the tree. In the beginning un-tanned, light yellow - later revealing a rusty red color.
In spring its early bell shaped blossom brighten your day with their look and their sweet scent. In fall its red berries seemed to glow like embers.
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 was once designated as a separate species, Arbutus texana, or as a variety of A. xalapensis. But it 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 is a rare but remarkable Texas native.
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 have a great smell 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. The Madrone trunk cannot get bigger without peeling away the old skin. A new cream-colored new bark is shown. Color then changes to peach to coral to reddish to chocolate.
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. You can see over 300 madrone trees growing on the Bear Spring Blossom Nature Preserve in Pipe Creek in eastern Bandera County.
Our once overgrazed and eroded property, just shy of 2,000 feet in altitude, is try to be restored to its original state of native grasses and mixed hardwoods. Smaller Texas 'Cedars" (mountain junipers) are hand cleared. Mulching the wood and spreading it on trails and bare ground to level ph-levels and coax native grasses to come up again from the caliche soil is the main task.
A stroll along the "Madrone Trail" reveals more than 300 madrone saplings and trees, most thriving beneath or just adjacent to larger cedar trees.
“On our preserve, You never see a young madrone under anything but a juniper,” Peter Bonenberger, president of Bear Springs Blossom Nature Conservation, says resolutely. “I have been told that the cedar produces an ash-like 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.”
In the last few years, many of our Madrone are dying. The changed humidity levels here in Pipe Creek, (much more fog than in the past) have let to an exploding fungus, that first turns the Madrone limbs black, later the whole tree dies.
For the most part, man has proven an abject failure at reproducing the madrone. Too little water at the outset and too much water later on can spell doom for the finicky native ornamental.
To illustrate the point, Bonenberger 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 Bear Springs Blossom Nature Preserve, 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.
In the past Native Americans 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. The wood and bark of the madrone is very hard, but is rather brittle. Historically it was used for tools, mine timbers, stirrups, handles and the like. And the Madrone's bark was used by the tanning industry. Both leaves and bark also have been used in Mexico as astringents and diuretics, and its bark and roots utilized for dyes.
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 western fringes of the Hill Country know that its unique beauty can best be appreciated up close. Take a hike, and see for yourself - close your eyes - touch it - feel it ancient strength ...
Information and text in part by Rob McCorkle
Protect Earth's native plants
Madrone - ArbutusA rare tree in the Texas Hill Country. Madrone blossoms in Spring with bell shaped fragrant flowers.
Red Madrone berries show in fall, food for birds. The Madrone is very difficult to transplant -Too much water kills a Madrone
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