The Other Side of Beekeeping

 July 2014

 The Other Side of Beekeeping

Some More Members of the Ericaceae


Pacific madrone, madrona, arbutus, arbute, arbousier

Scientific name: Arbutus menziesii

Origin: Native to the western coastal ranges of the U.S. and southern British Columbia.

Plant description: Arbutus menziesii is a widely branching evergreen shrub or tree, generally 4-10 m (~13.1-32.8ft), but sometimes up to 30 meters (~98.4 ft), tall. The outer bark peels from younger parts of the plant until mid summer, showing a green inner bark which soon weathers, leaving a dark red or brown polished surface. The area of the retained bark grows with age and becomes fissured with a roughened dark gray texture. The leathery leaves are alternately placed and are 6.5-13 cm (~2.6-5.1 in) long and 3.5-6 cm (~1.4-2.4 in) wide, or more rarely up to 8cm (~3.1 in) wide. The shape is elliptic with the base usually rounded and sometimes slightly cordate1, but rarely tapered. During their first year the leaves are dark green above and a paler green beneath. During their second year they turn red and yellow during June and July and eventually fall. On their edge they either have a very small fine serration2 or are entire. The leaf tip is rounded or comes to a point, but a small little point at the very tip is rather rare.

The fragrant flowers are in panicles3 6 to 15 cm (~ 2.4-5.9 in) long and occur on stalks that are initially pendulous, but become stiffly erect and lengthen with age. Initially the stalks are 3-5mm (~0.12-0.2 in), but occasionally up to 6.2mm (~0.24 in), and lengthen to 6-8 mm (~0.24-0.32 in) when in fruit. The calyx4 is creamy tan when in bloom. The corolla5 is yellowish white to pink and takes the form of a 6-8 mm (~0.24-0.32 in) long swollen tube that is constricted near the top and then slightly expands again nearer to the top of the flower. The style is about 5mm (~0.2 in) long. The fruits are bumpy (not smooth), generally spherical, red to orange berries, 13-20mm6 (~0.05- 0.79in) in diameter and contain a mealy pulp. The seeds are an elongate 2-2.5 mm (~ 0.08-0.1 in.). Where it can be grown, the plant is valued by many as an ornamental.

In California, Professor Coleman[3] places its southern U.S. boundary as the mountains of San Diego Co., where it attains a size of little more than a shrub, and then gains size progressing northward, reaching its maximum development and greatest abundance in Mendocino Co., CA. Munz[9] describes its CA distribution as: wooded slopes and canyons below 5000 ft (~1524 m) and is common in redwood forests, mixed evergreen forests, Douglas-Fir forests, and less common in foothill Woodlands, and Northern and Southern Oak Woodlands. It’s found in scattered locations of southern California and is abundant from San Luis Obispo Co. to Del Norte and Siskiyou Counties and from Mariposa Co. to Shasta Co. Richter[15] indicates that it is an occasional plant in the northern Sierra foothills, but very common in the Costal ranges, “especially northward.” John Lovell[8] indicates that it grows on mountain slopes and gravelly valleys of California coastal ranges reaching its highest development in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Pellett relates that Stephen Harmeling of the Washington Division of Apiculture states that it reaches its “highest perfection” in the Puget Sound Region of Washington. In British Columbia it is found west of the Cascades, mainly in drier parts of the Vancouver region including the Vancouver Islands and east to about the Skagit River area[16]. Scullen and Vansell­[17], writing about nectar and pollen plants of Oregon, indicate that it is abundant in the granite soils of the Rogue River Valley where it “may” be of some value. See also comments by these authors under ‘Importance as a honey plant’ below.

Blooming period: The USDA Plants Website[19] indicates that the plant blooms from March through May, but sometimes as early as January. Richter[15] indicates in California the species blooms in April. Professor Coleman states that it is in full bloom in May and June. Vansell[20], writing about California honey plants, indicates that it blooms during March and April. Pellett[14], provides information from Stephen J. Harmeling in the first report from the Division of Apiculture of Washington, that in the Puget Sound region it blooms in May. The Jepson Manual[23] indicates that it blooms March to May. Sheppard et al.[18] indicate that madrona blooms in the Vancouver area of British Columbia in June.

Importance as a honey plant:
Oertel[11], from his questionnaires, found the species to be of at least some importance in California, Oregon and Washington. Ayers and Harman[1], from their questionnaires, found the species to be important in California and British Columbia.

There is some discrepancy in how different writers have portrayed Arbutus menziesii as a honey plant. Some have depicted it as an exceptional honey plant while others provide information that suggests, while admitting that it is a honey plant of some value, they would not place it in the exceptional range. As an example of the first, University of California Professor George W. Coleman[3] in a series of articles entitled Beekeeping in our California National Forests in the 1921 October issue of The Western Honeybee, adds a bit of poetic prose to the beekeeping literature7: “When in full bloom, in May and June, the great crown laden with its honey-cups full to overflowing, around which the bumblebees, honey bees and other nectar-loving insects gather as at a feast, is a sight to make the heart of any nature-lover glad.” He also provides a description of the honey (see ‘Honey’ below). Continuing along this line, Pellett[14] provides his readers with a note from a Dr. C. E. Ehinger indicating that hummingbirds are attracted to the madrona trees in considerable numbers and that he (Dr. Ehinger) has seen 15 to 20 of them humming about in the blossoms at one time near Chico8, Washington.

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