Top Plants of Sonoma County – Arbutus ‘Marina’
A.‘Marina’ was introduced into the nursery trade in the mid-1980’s, and no one is exactly sure where it originated, although theories abound. It is likely a cross between two other Arbutus, one of which is itself a hybrid of Arbutus unedo, another of our ‘Top Plants’ for the County. Suffice it to say that while it shares many visual characteristics with its native cousin, A.‘Marina’ coexists happily with many other garden plants, can be transplanted, and as long as it is planted in a spot with decent drainage, is virtually trouble-free.
One of the frustrating things about being a gardener is that no matter how skilled you are, it is very often difficult to cultivate some of the most prolific wild plants. None is more elusive than the native Madrone, Arbutus menziesii. Its cinnamon, peeling bark, glossy leaves and abundant berries make it a standout in woodlands all around Sonoma County. However, it is nearly impossible to cultivate under most normal garden conditions, and it grows far to large for most gardens even if you were successful. If, like I, you have yearned for the native Madrone and wanted to grow one, or you are simply looking for an interesting but durable evergreen tree, Arbutus ‘Marina’ is an excellent choice.
While A. ‘Marina’ is a relatively tall tree – mature specimens can reach 40’ – it is a slow grower, so appropriate for all but the tiniest gardens. It has upright branches covered with smooth mahogany-colored bark, which exfoliates in late summer to expose the next year’s cinnamon-colored layer below. The dark green leathery leaves are about 4-5” long with flushes of bronze-colored new growth from spring through summer, which add interest and lighten the look of the tree. Even without the flowers and fruit, A. Marina is a handsome eye-catcher – it works well as a specimen tree as well as part of a group.
Now come the extras: like the native Madrone, A. Marina has beautiful flowers and fruit! Its pendulous clusters of small white and pink flowers are at their showiest in fall and winter, and are followed by yellow to red fruits. The fruit from last season remains on the tree as it produces this season’s flowers (similar to citrus), and both are displayed to advantage against the glossy leaves. The fruit is also edible with a flavor likened to a mixture of kiwi fruit and strawberry but as with the fruit of the common strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, the texture is gritty. It is a good habitat planting, as both birds and bees enjoy the tree, the former feeding on the fruit, and the latter on the nectar.
I’ve grown this tree very successfully since its introduction in both Occidental and Petaluma and have only ever run into one problem: if planted in a spot that does not drain well, the tree languishes and usually dies. This does not mean that it needs the kind of superb drainage that some of the California natives or pickier Mediterraneans prefer – just don’t put it someplace where it sits in boggy soil all winter. If purchased in standard form (one trunk rather than multi-trunked) I recommend staking for a couple of years as the crown can be heavy with the thick, broad leaves, especially if the tree is exposed to wind, which it will tolerate.
The boughs make a lovely centerpiece for autumn or holiday tables, because the flowers and fruit at their best in the fall and winter, and the leaves are beautiful year-round. I use this opportunity to prune out enough foliage to expose the twisty cinnamon-colored branches to their greatest advantage. This tree is a wonderful addition to almost any garden. How many trees can brag of beautiful bark, leaves, flowers and fruit – all at the same time!
Arbutus Marina can be grown successfully in all of Sonoma County’s microclimates (see accompanying article) and can be purchased at many nurseries which carry trees, such as Urban Tree Farm in Fulton. It is available in both standard or multi-trunked forms.