by Bob Harms  email-here

Where to Plant Madrones

The selection of a site may be critical. Although "good drainage" is frequently noted, my own experience and observation of seedlings in the wild leads me to conclude that stability of the soil base (such as the Glen Rose limestone strata), rather than drainage is the critical factor. My view is that once expansion and contraction of the clay tears and damages the fine roots, the madrone will not recover.

I have madrones thriving in seepy wet areas alongside Spiranthes (ladiestresses) orchids. In one exceptionally wet summer, a madrone began to turn brown, looking very much like root rot, but it was in a stable rocky formation and immediately recovered when with dryer weather. On the other hand, quite well established madrones in deep heavy clay soil have on occasion up and died when a hot dry spell immediately followed a wet period. When this happens, they don't actually die quickly, but one is helpless to prevent the ultimate end. (Cf. 'Not a success'.)

I estimate that some 500 young madrones have been established without human intervention in the area above my largest tree, from seeds deposited primarily by birds and raccoons, and I am continually finding new volunteers. All but a handful of these got their start in the rich mulch under the junipers. Other plants benefitting from this medium include white honeysuckle (Lonicera albiflora) and crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata). In several areas where junipers have become large in open grasslands madrones are volunteering under the junipers. (These were originally KR bluestem, but native grasses are slowly replacing it.)

Six under one cedar

Six seedlings under a single ashe juniper

But madrones have also volunteered in areas of oak mulch, along a stream bank and in areas which are regularly mown. I conclude that the juniper mulch is a valuable planting medium, but not essential. [See The Madrone—Juniper Association and Ashe Juniper as a Madrone Nursery Tree.]

I initially considered the availability of subsurface moisture to be a significant factor. Our land consists of a small valley with an all-weather creek and springs between two higher hillsides on the east and west. The Glen Rose limestone strata slant from west to east, thus producing springs, seeps and seasonal wet areas only on the west side of the valley. Although most volunteer seedlings have been found on the west slope, as the junipers on the east slope have begun to provide more shade and mulch, young madrones have recently been found there as well. This east/west asymmetry may actually result from bird and animal dispersal patterns, and, only indirectly, the impact of moisture on the size of junipers.

22 year old madrone
My largest madrone (above) is in an open area, exposed to full sun, with sandy soil at the surface (clay deeper), on the bank of a ditch that on occasion becomes a wet-weather creek, and some 50 feet from permanent springs. Transplanted as a tiny seedling with its first true leaves in 1977, by 1999 it had reached a height of 25 feet, with a width of almost 30 feet. (For historical perspective see "20 Years of a Madrone Site". )

Five years in the life of a single madrone in the wild.
madrone SC8 1998
madrone SC8

As can be seen in the above photos, growth in the wild can be very slow. Only one volunteer (not in deep clay) has died — as the result of an armadillo digging down at its base, damaging the root. In somewhat better soil, growth can be somewhat faster, as with the plant shown below:

Five years in the wild for a second plant.
1993 madrone FC6 1998 madrone FC6

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