Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Ode to the madrone
Long before I started to become aware of the names of plants and before I ever started growing them myself, I dreamed about the Texas madrone, Arbutus xalapensis var. texana (Pictures above are from Big Bend National Park.) This striking tree can be found in the Texas Hill County and in the hills and mountains of West Texas. It’s related to the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo of Europe, and the Pacific madrone, Arbutus menziesii. Texas madrone has been called naked Indian or lady’s legs because its reddish bark peels back showing a pinkish to whitish inner bark depending on where you see the tree. The peeling bark of the madrone is perhaps one of the most beautiful displays in nature. Its light wood is extremely strong, which might explain why it used to be harvested for tool handles and for saddles. The berries are red, and they are edible. I haven’t tried them, so I can’t tell you how good they are. I’ll do that one of these days if I can beat the birds to one. Years after I had seen my first madrone, I had no problem identifying in a plant book what took over my imagination. The leaves are tropical in appearance, and the creamy white flowers look like tiny bells, which illustrate its membership in the blueberry or heath family of plants. It can grow in some tough places, often poking right of rocky locations, but usually can be found near its nursery plant, the juniper, Juniperus ashei. While the Texas madrone is notoriously tough, nurserymen have a hard time selling them because of their high transplant failure rate. I’ve tried to grow a few of them. No matter what strategy I took, the plant just ups and dies on me. They are obviously sensitive to the level of moisture in the soil, and some speculate that there is a special mycorrhizal fungus in the soil that forms a symbiotic relationship with the tree’s roots to supply it with a necessary amount of nutrients. Natives of Texas near Medina sells madrones, and they tell you to cut the pot away from the plant so you don’t disturb the root ball. They also tell you to put some juniper mulch to increase its chance of survival. The hope is to inoculate the plant with that special mycorrhizal fungus and to provide it with some nutrients it prefers. I’ve been a highly successful gardener, but I’ve yet to elevate myself to the challenge of a madrone. I will try again, and I’m plotting some new strategies. I want to build an elevated bed with juniper mulch on top of a limestone undersoil. I just have to convince my wife to let me fork out the big bucks for another madrone seedling. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m dreaming of going back to West Texas to see the madrones growing amongst the junipers, the big tooth maples (Acer grandidentatum), agave havardiana, sotol (Dasylierion leiophyllum), Thompson yucca (Yucca thompsoniana) and many others.