Arbutus is a quintessential West Coast tree, and is a most fitting tree name for a street in the Kitsilano neighbourhood. On Arbutus street, just north of Broadway, is the small converted corner store: Arbutus Market. Now a coffee shop, it exemplifies the feeling Vancouverites have come to associate with Kitsilano.
Arbutus Street in Vancouver bears the name of an extraordinary broad-leafed coastal tree, with a magnificent twisting shape and stunningly coloured peeling bark. The subject of much painting and photography, it is Canada’s only evergreen hardwood and is only found here on the West Coast. Easily recognized by its dramatically twisting branches, leaning, crooked shapes, and rugged form, the arbutus can grow up to 30 metres tall, and has been known to live to 500 years. Its dark leaves are glossy and leathery, and its peeling red-brown bark reveals a smooth greenish to cinnamon-red trunk. The arbutus flowers in drooping dense white clusters in spring, attracting bees with their strong honey scent. Waxwings and robins eat the berry-like fruit of the arbutus, which is a bright orange/red.
The arbutus is also known as Madrone or Madrona, and is very closely related to the “Strawberry Tree” of the Mediterranean. The tree was known in ancient times: Pliny gave the tree the name of Arbutus; Horace praised its shade and Ovid praised its ‘blushing fruit.’ Virgil recommends young arbutus shoots as winter food for goats and for basket-work.
The wood itself is prized by west coast woodworkers, and many examples of exquisite carving and wood-turning show the beauty of the arbutus hardwood. Tannin is taken from the leaves, bark and fruit, and a brown vegetable dye is prepared from the bark. The fruit is rarely eaten.
Here, Arbutus is often found on exposed rocky bluffs overlooking the ocean, and as it doesn’t like shade, it is also seen growing tall in clearings. It can survive our harshest climate: cold, wet and windy with snow in winter and hot droughts in summer. The shape and glossiness of the leaves allows heavy rainwater to run easily off their surface. The tree survives drought by growing burls that store water for release when needed, or by letting a branch or part of a branch slowly die off so that the tree can live.
Salish First Nation honors the arbutus tree as their Tree of Knowledge because it knows how to find the sun. Its search for sunlight is shown in its bending around for optimum light exposure, even growing horizontally to reach the most light. Beautiful in the rains of winter, the arbutus seems to shine with rich depth of colour in its bark and the deep green of the evergreen leaves.