Huge madrona perfumes centuries of springtimes
Seattle Times staff reporter
This massive madrona, older than the Declaration of Independence and the Jamestown colony, could easily fall to the saw, Ted Serr would often fret as he admired its massive canopy.
It was after he died that his wife of 50 years, Virginia, bought the land and saved the tree in her husband's memory, and for the community.
It takes 13 preschoolers to reach around its massive trunk, thought to be more than 400 years old, said Serr's daughter, Jackie Miller, smiling at the idea of tiny hands daisy-chained around the spectacular tree.
"They are gorgeous," Serr said of madronas, a signature of Puget Sound country.
Most often found near saltwater, their form can be sinuous or massive, their bark red, green or brown, their leaves glossy and evergreen. They are festooned with berries and blossoms, alive with birds, and often stand in groups bent to one another as if in quiet conversation.
This madrona at 231 West Eighth Street, with its generous boughs and leafy crown, was always special to her husband, a dentist whose office was down the street, Serr said.
"We used to drive by it all the time, and he would often say he surely hoped no one would buy the lot and cut it down," Serr said.
Ted's Tree, as it is now known, has many admirers and protectors, including the city, which carefully routed a new sidewalk around it, and James Causton, a Port Angeles arborist who calls himself the tree's baby-sitter.
Causton began a rescue campaign for the tree in 1990 after an office building was built right next to it on an adjacent lot. "That's what lit my fuse — it was a total insult to the bloody tree," said Causton, originally from Britain.
Not much happened until Serr stepped in and bought the narrow, 7,000-square-foot commercial lot in 1999 for $57,000. After the purchase, Causton inoculated the madrona's roots with beneficial fungi, to help the tree absorb nutrients more efficiently and ward off disease. A nourishing layer of compost and mulch also helped boost the tree's vigor.
Measured in 1996 at 85 feet high, with a 95-foot crown spread and a circumference of 21 feet 5 inches, the tree has been thriving ever since and may be the largest madrona in Washington, if not the entire West Coast.
Serr had the only building on the lot pulled down so the tree would have the place to itself. Come summer, she moves a sprinkler from spot to spot as she weeds, spending time in her husband's memory, Serr said. "It's kind of like having Ted around."
She leaves the lot open for public enjoyment: There's no fence, no private-property or no-trespassing sign. "Why have it if people can't enjoy it?" Serr said.
She has plans: a memorial plaque, maybe a gazebo where people can sit and enjoy the tree. One thing's certain: The tree will always be taken care of, even after she's gone, through a trust or some other arrangement, Serr said.
Ted's Tree is a rare find: Its branches reach to the center line of the street and across the width of the lot to tickle the roofs of buildings on either side.
A tree this big creates its own weather: It's noticeably cooler under it. Its trunk is scaly at the base, but its arms are smooth and bare, the bark having peeled back to the new wood.
It wears a venerable beard of moss on the north side of its trunk, and its deep-green leaves are a fresh contrast to views of the snow-capped Olympics peeking between buildings across the street. In spring, the tree is covered with new leaves that shine soft and lime green, and the ground is salted with the white, urn-shaped blossoms just shed. Curls of bark crunch underfoot.
It's always up to something: frothing with blooms in spring, glowing with red berries in winter, and shedding terra-cotta peels of bark and cascades of leaves all summer long.
Its berries intoxicate birds. They become tipsy and raucous on bellyfuls of fruit which, when past its prime, ferments and provides an avian buzz.
Birds aren't the only ones to succumb to the madrona's charms. Its abundant bracts of honey-scented blooms perfuming a spring afternoon can dent the firmest work ethic.
To sit in the shade of a coastal madrona forest, watching crystal-clear, tumbling waves and munching madrona blossoms is to know the Pacific Northwest as a land of milk and honey. And of course the madrona's arms, wet and slick with rain, are as sensual as bare skin.
The tree's form is shaped by light.
Left alone and without competition for sun, the madrona will grow a monolithic trunk and a crown as broad and spreading as an oak.
But put it at the edge of a forest, and the madrona will thread its way to the light, growing horizontal along the ground or in spirals, whatever it takes to reach the sun.
The trees like relatively dry sites. On southerly aspects around Puget Sound and in the San Juan Islands, they thrive in the soft winters and warm sun.
Logged or burned, madrona is often undaunted: It has a regenerative organ called a burl below the soil line. The burl serves as a source of stored carbohydrates, and is covered with aggregations of buds. After fire or logging, the buds sprout vigorously, kicking off a whole new life cycle for the tree, which was only top-killed.
Indeed, a madrona trunk may be far younger than the burl from which it sprouted.
Madronas evolved with fire. How they will fare without it is unknown, said Chris Chappell, vegetation ecologist with the Washington Natural Heritage Program at the state Department of Natural Resources. Periodic fire may help maintain forest health by clearing out diseased wood.
The madrona does not tolerate heavy shade, and on some sites it also depends on fire to reduce or eliminate the competing overstory of Douglas fir.
Typically 50 to 80 feet tall and up to 2 feet in diameter, the madrona may have several reasons for shedding their distinctive peeling bark. The bark is thin, so it splits as the tree grows, and some scientists believe the tree benefits from the additional photosynthesis by green, new wood exposed to the sun. The bark also may contain chemicals that impede the growth of competing plants wherever it lands on the forest floor.
Pacific madronas are found from British Columbia to Southern California. They can live to 200 years and longer, if undisturbed. The root systems of the madrona are sensitive to insult and injury by compaction, construction, paving or other sudden change.
"They just want to be left alone," said Linda Chalker-Scott, associate professor of forest resources at the University of Washington.
Planting a lawn under a madrona can be the kiss of death; the trees can't tolerate the increased nitrates and water that come with fertilizing and irrigating a lawn.
Many madronas, disturbed and stressed, succumb to fungal attack. Cankers can girdle branches or even entire trees, causing dieback. Some stands, such as the madronas edging Seattle's Magnolia Bluff, suffer for their isolation. Without other trees to buffer drying winds, the madronas struggle. They also have been hacked on by neighbors wanting more open marine views.
The Port Angeles madrona is a standout, an exception. While many urban madronas are declining, this one remains glorious. Miller sees value in its sheer longevity:
"In an urban setting, there are so few big, natural things to see," Miller said. "It's good for people to see how things are supposed to work."
For some, this giant is a silent teacher, a humbling witness to centuries of history. "It's kind of like it puts you back in your place," Causton said. "It makes you recognize how insignificant we all are."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published May 19, was corrected May 31. A previous version of this article on the Pacific madrona said the madrona is Washingtons only native evergreen broadleaf tree. It is not. There is at least one other: the golden chinkapin.