The bright red-orange berries of madrone trees are ripening, giving hillsides and forest canopies a crimson tint. This tree is a stunning sight at any time of year, with large dark-green leaves, crooked trunks and smooth, rust-colored bark. But right now the madrones are particularly gorgeous as they add their brilliant berries into the mix. And there are a lot of them! Each tree is decked with so much fruit that it takes on a reddish glow.
Look for madrone (Arbutus menziesii) as one of the many species growing in mixed hardwood and conifer forests. You can see them even while driving: look for bursts of red scattered across the dark green wallpaper of a forested hillside. It often is found growing along with Doug fir, tanoak and other oaks–usually on well-drained, rocky soils.
Madrone berries are edible, and were used widely by Native American tribes such as the Miwok and the Salinan. The fruits were eaten raw–but in small quantities. Sometimes they were chewed for flavor, but not swallowed. They were more often eaten cooked or dried, or made into unfermented cider (water used to make the cider was boiled by adding hot rocks to a watertight basket, and stirring them so they wouldn’t burn through).
Berries were also made into necklaces, and used for bait in fishing. The leaves were chewed to treat stomachache and cramps, or used to make a wash for poison oak.