For those of a more scientific nature, the tree most commonly known as Madrone is properly classified as Arbutus menziesii. A. menziesii has a very limited geographic distribution, being primarily restricted to the coastal areas of North America from an extreme northern locale of southwestern British Columbia, where it is restricted to water-shedding sites on southeastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and adjacent coastal mainland, southward through Washington, Oregon, and California in the coastal mountains and west slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The southern limit of Pacific madrone is on Mount Palomar in San Diego County, California.
While A. menziesii can be found inland, these populations are very isolated and limited with the major populations found strictly along the coastline, and primarily those coasts north of San Francisco Bay. The populations south and east of this primary area are extremely fragmented and small.
A. menziesii requires fire to propagate. The mature trees produce many seeds but the seedlings compete for sunlight and nutrients with conifers. When conifers are removed or reduced through naturally occurring fires, the A. menziesii seeds sprout and can grow quickly, but native populations have been greatly reduced by human controls on natural fires in the native areas which are also popular for homebuilding, which is contrary to natural wild fire patterns being allowed to occur.
A closely related species, A. unedo, which is native to the Mediterranean region has become a popular ornamental tree or shrub in much of the same area in which A. menziesii is found natively. However, A. menziesii is difficult to transplant while A. unedo lends itself much more easily to cultivation in gardens and landscapes.
For the sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to A. menziesii from this point forward as Madrone.
The wood of the Madrone tends to be of a creamy or even pinkish brown color, but on occasion dark red patches can occur. In many ways, Madrone is similar to fruitwoods in appearance.
However, Madrone is almost always limited to burl pieces, which are very popular compared to the regular timber. Madrone burl is well known and loved for its many closely-packed clusters of knots and swirled grain.
Burl wood can occur anywhere the tree has suffered a physical injury or disease. It can occur both above and below the ground line. Burl wood is often considered beautiful and desirable because the grain is typical twisted and twirled into fantastic figures and design. However, despite its natural beauty, burl wood can be quite difficult to work with hand tools or on the lathe due to the very same factors that make is so visually desirable. The twisted grain can cause weakness in the wood, making it prone to cracks and breakage during working, especially during turning on the lathe.
The grain of the Madrone tends to be straight with a very fine and even texture. This characteristics is not likely to be true of the burl wood however due to the very nature of burls.
The endgrain character of Madrone tends to be porous with many small pores in no specific arrangement. Heartwood deposits are occasionally present. However, endgrain is not present in burl wood.
While I shouldn’t think it would much matter for the purposes for which Madrone, especially the burl wood, is typically used, Madrone is rated as non-durable to outright perishable in terms of resistance to fungal rot and decay. Madrone’s specific resistance to termites and other insect pests is not noted in official records.
While the following workability information is accurate for Madrone timber, working with burl wood, the most common form of Madrone on the market, might be different due to the unique character of burl woods.