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Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page updated at 02:01 P.M.
By Maria Dolan
Like a Prohibition speakeasy, West Seattle's little-known Seola Park Viewpoint keeps the good stuff hidden.
Beyond the grass and blackberries up front, an inconspicuous footpath fringed with native salal winds away from the street. A woodpecker raps on a Douglas fir snag, and a pair of northern flickers chatters overhead. The path leads to a rare urban sight: a grove of Pacific madrona trees, dozens of them, leaning windward over a sandy bluff. Shoes crunch on crisp strips of shed bark, a salty breeze from Puget Sound blows in, and the thirst for urban escape is momentarily quenched. Though a bona fide native, this broadleaf evergreen tree seems like an exotic sideshow in a Northwest landscape dominated by needle-y green conifers. In California the trees are called "madrone" and in British Columbia by their Latin name, "arbutus." They are known for their dark shiny leaves, and for the bonsai'd branches of cliff-hugging specimens, shaped by the wind. Most of all, they are known for colorful, peeling bark that adds spice to our region's mutable blue-greens.
"When the burnt sienna reddish kind of bark is peeling off and you get that pistachio color," rhapsodizes local artist David Harrison, who has painted over 100 pictures of the trees, "that part just kills me." He also likes to capture the branches that "go every which way," and the dried, fallen leaves.
City madronas are reminders of getaways to the San Juan Islands, where there may be more of these trees than people. The name "madrona" is a part of our history, used for a neighborhood, a park, and schools all around Puget Sound. Even the Magnolia neighborhood should have been named for the trees, after a navy geographer in the 1850s spotted (and misidentified) them in that location from a passing ship.
Unfortunately, as our city grows denser, madronas have become less common. They have roots that can dig deep even to bedrock for water, and therefore often locate themselves on arid bluffs other trees can't claim. These locations also happen to be prime sites for view homes, and for this madronas have often been sacrificed.
North of Seola Viewpoint, perhaps the city's largest and healthiest stand spills down a sandy hillside in the Arroyos neighborhood. The glorious blanket of red and green nearly fell under a developer's ax until neighbor Sue Miller nominated the forest for preservation in the 1980s. She says city council members who came to see the place were "awestruck."
"They just thought it was beautiful and it is!" says Miller. "One thing that makes our city unique is that there are spots like this that are saved." She has seen wildlife using the area, including red foxes.
Diseases are threatening many of Seattle's remaining madronas, in particular several types of fungi that take advantage of old or weak trees. Even the madrona on the City of Seattle's Heritage Tree tour, an 11-foot-diameter, 50-foot-tall beauty in the Ravenna neighborhood, is near-dead.
At the Seola Viewpoint some branches are blackened and brittle, and many graceful trunks are marred by cankers, open wounds that can cut off the tree's water and food supply. While the tissue may repair itself when wounded by either disease or a vandal's knife, the fungi that grow on a canker can produce toxins that prevent healing.
To their health
According to Marianne Elliott, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources who studies madrona diseases, our changing climate has made the trees more susceptible to infection. "The extremely dry summers of the last couple of years have pushed them over the edge," she says.
The suppression of wildfires may also be weakening trees. Like a garden perennial, madronas store nutrients underground; healthy saplings can sprout from a stump if the tree is cut down or burned. Younger trees seem to be more resistant to the fungi than older ones, and some of our city's specimens have been here for more than 100 years.
Since Elliott started her Web site, The Arbutus Page, in 1996, she's heard from hundreds of fans. They ask how to grow the trees, send digital pictures of blighted branches for diagnosis, and tell stories of their favorite specimens.
A group closer to home, Save Magnolia's Madrones, sprang up in the 1990s to rescue that neighborhood's ailing trees through education, tree planting and funding studies, including Elliott's. Magnolia's west-facing, Sound-view promenade graced with madronas is one of Seattle's spectacular sunset destinations.
One study discovery is that the madrona trees' tenacious roots are contributing to slope stability on a bluff that has experienced landslides.
Elliott will be publishing a paper later this year on her fungi findings, and the news is not all dire. Having studied specimens from California to British Columbia, she believes the deadly fungus may be endemic and not introduced. Trees tend to have better resistance to endemic diseases, rather than introduced ones such as the Dutch Elm disease that has ravaged that species.
Further hope lies in the trees' regenerative abilities, and the fact that its berries are disseminated by traveling birds. This is all good news to Elliott's many e-mail correspondents. And it's good news to artist Harrison, who often props his easel at Magnolia Bluff to paint the trees framing the water.
"Seems like the Sound and those madrona trees just go together," says this one-time Madrona Junior High student. "There's nothing like a warm afternoon and the sun hits them. They just come alive. They're vibrant. The madronas really do it to me. They seem like summer."
A good reason to pay a visit to your favorite madrona as we enter a darker season.
Maria Dolan of Seattle is co-author with Kathryn True of "Nature in the City: Seattle" (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).
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