The Beauty of Arbutus

Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii)
Groves of twisted Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) can be found at Helliwell Provincial Park on Hornby Island, British Columbia.

A painting called “The Sunbathers” (by Daphne Stevens) hanging on my kitchen wall depicts a group of smooth, orange-barked arbutus trees basking in the sun on a hot, rocky hillside from BC’s southern Gulf Islands. There is something mesmerizing about this tree, with its sinuous limbs and distinctive orangey-cinnamon peeling bark. Leaning out over bluffs and beaches with a crown of glossy dark-green leaves, the exotic Arbutus is reminiscent of warmer, more Mediterranean climes.

According to writer Andrew Scott “… the arbutus seems to exert some weird power over the creative mind.” Droves of artists and poets have sought to capture the dramatic presence of this striking tree, which figures in the works of some of Canada’s great artists, such as E.J. Hughes’ “An Arbutus Tree at Crofton Beach” (1973), W.P. Weston’s “Arbutus Shedding Bark” (1947), and Emily Carr’s “Arbutus Tree”  (1922).

Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) is Latin for “strawberry tree”, in reference to the tree’s bright red berries and its resemblance to the related strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) from Europe. The species name, menziesii, is named after Archibald Menzies, a Scottish botanist who described the tree in 1792 during Captain Vancouver’s expedition to the Pacific coast. In the United States arbutus is also known as Madrone, which comes from the Spanish word Madroño, meaning strawberry tree.

Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) Berries
Bright Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) berries somewhat resemble small oranges.

Arbutus reaches the northern tip of its range around Campbell River, and extends south along the coast to southern California. In BC, it is restricted to dry, rocky, sunny slopes with coarse mineral soil that drains rapidly. It is usually found within eight kilometres of the ocean, but in our area arbutus is also found along the dry bluffs of lake edges, such as Comox Lake and the Buttle Lake corridor in Strathcona Park. South of the border, Arbutus is more common and occupies a wider range of habitats, and may grow at elevations of 1200 metres or more.

Fussy about where it grows, arbutus is generally unsuitable for the garden. It is difficult to transplant, and if conditions are not right (too shady or moist), it is susceptible to root rot and a host of other pathogens.

Often gnarled and irregular in its growth form, the trunk of arbutus divides into many twisting branches. It can reach heights of 30 metres, but is usually much shorter and can be shrub-like. Arbutus is often found growing along side Douglas-fir and Garry oak trees, and is associated with shrubs like oceanspray, Oregon grape and baldhip rose.

The older papery orange-brown bark is shed yearly, peeling off in strips, revealing the newer lime-green or chartreuse bark beneath. The dark green leathery leaves are shiny above, and whitish beneath, and readily shed rainwater. Arbutus retains its leaves year-round, and is the only broad-leaved evergreen tree native to Canada.

Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) Flowers
Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) flowers are creamy white and very fragrant.

In late April to May, arbutus is covered in clusters of frothy creamy-white blooms that smell like honey, and are very attractive to bees and other insects. Like other members of the heath family, the individual flowers of arbutus are small and bell-shaped, similar to that of heather, blueberries, huckleberries and salal. In late summer and fall, mealy orange to red berries are produced that are inedible to humans, but loved by birds such as American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Deer and mice also favour the berries. Roughly the size of a marble, each berry has a bumpy surface texture, like an orange rind.

Arbutus wood is cherry coloured when aged, and is very heavy and dense, weighing as much as 44 lbs per square foot. Though it can be used for woodworking, arbutus is brittle, and tends to crack and warp easily when it is dried.

First Nations peoples used arbutus as a remedy for colds, stomach troubles and tuberculosis. The reddish bark was boiled up and used as a food dye.

In our area, arbutus is most common along the shores of the northern Gulf Islands including Denman, Hornby and Quadra Islands. Lovely arbutus trees can also be viewed along the highway in the vicinity of Parksville and Nanaimo.

About the Contributors:

Jocie Ingram is a naturalist and writer based in the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. More of her nature writing can be found on her blog.

Dave Ingram is a nature photographer based on Vancouver Island. More of his photographs can be viewed on his blog.