– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Summer has now slipped into September, and the Madrone bark cracks.

Sinews of madrone bark

Sinews of madrone bark

Like sinews along the branch, the bark peels back revealing a fresh new skin, vaguely green and ready for winter growth.  The old skin exfoliates almost suddenly, brought on by heat in a seasonal pattern nature repeats every summer.  A sure sign that, here in California, autumn is nigh.

I am blessed to have Madrones, Arbutus menziesii, in my garden, the finest of all California trees for gardeners.  I do love Oaks and have many on my property, but they get huge and too large for most gardens. The madrone is near perfect: fragrant spring flowers, big glossy evergreen leaves, red bark shedding every fall, and red winter berries the birds adore.

madrone bark erupting

madrone bark erupting

On young trees the bark peels back completely but as the tree ages a tougher, true bark forms.  But even the older, gray bark has a shaggy appearance, and it too is subject to eruptions of new skin forcing its way to the sun.  I have come to appreciate this process as a sign, a sure and fleeting sign like cherry blossoms in the spring, that the seasons are changing.  Somehow I find great comfort knowing nature carries on despite our fears, and seeing the madrone’s peeling reminds me nature does carry on.

I take these trees for granted knowing they are native to my hillside and I have soil with just the right mycorrhizal fungi to grow them effortlessly in the garden.  They all grow slowly but the wild ones on the hill seem to grow imperceptibly.  Yet nature’s slow steady progress is marked in one gnarly tree by the names carved into the bark by my children’s friends.

initials carved into madrone bark

initials carved into madrone bark

I can no longer quite read which friend this was and it is not important.  The tree is doing its best to forget and in another year the scar will heal and peel away.  Yet this process too reminds me of a pattern in life: children grow up and move on.  Nature carries on.

As a photographer, I now get to the point of all this pattern talk.  The camera gives us a tool to explore, find patterns and give meaning to what we see.  It is not that the camera lies, it reveals – and hopefully communicates.

madrone bark as peeling paint

madrone bark as peeling paint

I confess I boosted the orange color and enhanced the yellow to give it a greener cast.  (I did not work in the red and green color channels for those who want a color tutorial)  The curling bark looked like paint peeling off an old wall somewhere and seemed a proper subject for a photograph.  Can I share one more ?

pattern of peeling madrone bark

pattern of peeling madrone bark

What patterns are you fellow bloggers finding that show the season’s change ?

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Nancy Bond September 17, 2008, 9:30 am

Wonderful, abstract photos! I’ll have to look for patterns among my plants. 🙂

Thanks Nancy – When you look for those patterns use your camera looking through the viewfinder to compose and isolate the patterns. Saxon

Sylvia September 17, 2008, 10:28 am

What a lovely tree Saxon. I had to look it up as I had never heard of it and found a picture of the blossom – no wonder you value it so highly. Lovely pictures of some lovely bark.

Best wishes Sylvia (England)
Not surprising you have never heard of it in England ! And as I said, it is very hard to grow outside its own habitat. And really easy where it is native. Saxon

Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden) September 17, 2008, 11:12 am

Beautiful photography! Since I’m in North Carolina, I’ve never seen your tree. It’s truly beautiful! I love the “patterns” theme and you’ve given me a new way to look at the garden. I suppose my pattern watching has been in the shadows and light. So many times, my husband and I have sat on our front porch and watching the shadow and light patterns across the garden, when he’ll say “another Monet moment”…ahhh

Ya’ know ? Those Monet moments are the hardest ones to capture with a camera but I take comfort knowing painters always lie ; just like the camera, eh? It is more pleasurable to enjoy those moments from the porch than to try to capture it. Saxon

Jean September 18, 2008, 12:35 pm

Ah, you’ve inspired me again. I’ll be looking for those seasonal pattern changes tomorrow morning. Meantime, I just blogged about some patterns in my plants, although they’re not related to the seasonal change:

By the way, I’ve been lucky enough to see madrones and I think they’re one of the neatest trees around. Very, very special.

Jean thanks for sharing your own link and patterns. I wish I grew caladiums and keep thinking I should and then feel guilty about how much water they would take in my California garden. Seeing your lea close-up inspires me to maybe try one or two.

Glad to know you like succulents. Have you seen my new book?
Lots of patterns in that class of plants ! – Saxon

Jean September 19, 2008, 11:43 am

Wow, I hadn’t seen that book yet but I just bought it! Thanks for the link.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen caladiums in California. It seems like they might look out of place next to all the Mediterrean type plants. Caladiums are kind of fat and fluffy compared to most xeriscapic plants.

I’ve put more patterns on my blog today:


Nice to see you are looking for more patterns and thanks for the book order ! Caladiums are definitely out of place in California though I have seen them fairly frequently in some high end hotel and show gardens but they do require lots of water. I would like to put one, maybe in a pot, just to see and photograph the wonderful color – and patterns as you showed. Saxon

healingmagichands September 19, 2008, 12:23 pm

Very nice group of pictures. As a massage therapist I had trouble with the sinew concept, as these are generally rather deep and not surficial structures. But this is merely a quibble, I really “got” the peeling paint thing. And your post made me think about the patterns I see in the garden, the seasonal patterns that indicate change. I realized that I don’t look for those sorts of patterns and I probably need to. I tend to see the process change — the plant going from flower to seed rather than an overall pattern. Thanks for the nudge to examine the ways I interact with my garden.

I wasn’t really looking for the season changes myself but when the bark cracked it sort of knocked me up the side of my head and said “look at this!”. It was kind of neat that mother nature took it upon herself to give me notice of her patterns of seasonality. Saxon

Les September 20, 2008, 7:36 pm

I think gardeners do not consider bark enough, and that is very nice bark in your photos. This week I just planted Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ as it is the only variety seemingly available here. I love the fact that it evergreen and blooms in the fall just as last years efforts are turning into attractive fruit. The bark is a nice color but not nearly as interesting as the A. menziesii.

Les – Thanks for posting and mentioning A. unedo as a fine substitute for A. menziesii. Fine red bark does not peel as dramatically as our CA native but its fruiting caps are actually more showy almost like strawberries, earning the name “strawberry tree”. Another good arbutus that is in the trade, at least in the West Coast, is Arbutus ‘Marina’, a hybrid if uncertain parentage though A. unedo is certainly part of it. – Saxon

Aiyana September 22, 2008, 2:34 am

Great photos. The madrones sort of remind me of Eucalyptus.

Aiyana – thanks for stopping by. You don’t say where you post from, but your observation about similarity to Eucalyptus is spot on, especially if you are thinking about E. glubulus, the Blue Gum Euc. As its bark first peels it also reveals a new skin that is tinged green ready to grow a new layer. Unfortunately this tree is a huge nasty weed here in California, and opposed to the native Madrone, is probably the worst tree for gardens. Not only are they big and greedy they explode like roman candles in fire and all the peeling bark, which tends to persist along the tall trunks, offers a ladder effect for fire to get up into the canopy and into the wind. – Saxon

Bonnie September 22, 2008, 9:32 pm

It’s gorgeous. And I had no idea there is a Texas madrone until I looked it up.

I find myself absent mindedly picking dried zinnia heads and scattering them around the garden. Maybe that is my fall “pattern”

Bonnie – Thanks for pointing out there are other native Madrones. If gardeners fall in love with a plant from a photo or what they see in a garden they visit while traveling, it is often best to find which similar plant is available locally.
And I loved your comment about your “pattern” of spreading the seeds. You “got” my message that the season itself brings patterns.
– Saxon

Robin Wedewer September 23, 2008, 8:51 am

I have to agree that’s one fab photo. Very linear and graphic.

Ntl Gardening Examiner
(and chicken lover)

Thanks for taking the time to comment Robin. I know nothing about chickens. Do they reveal seasonal patterns ? – Saxon

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