The Madrone Way
Hill Country Gentleman Passionate About Growing Native Texas Madrone Trees
How to Grow Madrone
The Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) — also called Lady's Leg and Naked Indian — grows up to 30 feet high in rocky soils. Its crooked limbs, ranging in color from cream to orange and apricot to dark red, bear leathery evergreen leaves. Urn-shaped, white flowers bloom in early spring and produce red fruit that's relished by wildlife in the fall.
Madrones, which probably lack root hairs, rarely survive transplanting from the wild. If purchasing a potted one from a grower, Mike Prochoroff offers this advice:
Do not plant a madrone outside of its native range. Site selection is important. Find a shady location (under an oak or juniper) that faces east or north, preferably on a slightly angled slope for drainage.
Dig a hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the pot. Save the soil and mix with organic matter. Pour a gallon of water into the hole; observe for 20 to 30 minutes. If the water doesn't drain within an hour, find another site. In the selected hole, place medium-sized native rocks in the bottom. Plant the madrone, filling the hole with the half soil/half organic mix. Rocks placed around the top will protect the tree from rooting animals.
Sprinkler systems turn madrones into lazy trees whose roots will stay high in the ground. Water one gallon a week if there's no rain. The madrone will start to search for water itself and root deeper. Fertilize lightly in the spring when new growth appears; use an organic 3-5-2 formula. Madrones grow slowly but can occasionally grow as much as 12 to 18 inches in a year. Protect small trees from browsing livestock and deer with cages.
ike Prochoroff has a thing for Texas madrones. Since the early 1970s, he's devoted much of his life to observing, growing and preserving the increasingly rare native tree, known for its cinnamon-brown bark that peels away to reveal a smooth new replacement.
"Madrones grow in isolated colonies throughout the Trans-Pecos mountains and the Edwards Plateau," says Prochoroff, who lives with his wife, Kerry, northwest of Dripping Springs, Texas. "There used to be hundreds of them in West Lake Hills near Austin, but now there's just dozens."
Most biologists blame development and overgrazing for the tree's declining numbers. Prochoroff thinks climate changes and clearing Ashe junipers, which harbor madrone seedlings beneath their canopy, play a role, too. Since he can't stop the bulldozers or control the weather, Prochoroff built three madrone greenhouses on the couple's land, which supports a sturdy colony of decades-old madrones. Their bright red berries produce the seeds from which he's so far germinated 1,000 or so seedlings since 2014.
This fall, Prochoroff, a retired graphic artist who's a Capital Farm Credit customer, will sell his first madrones at native plant sales and a few retail nurseries in Central Texas. He calls his nursery The Madrone Way.
"People say madrones are finicky to grow, but I'm here to say they're not, as long as you plant them in the right location within their native range," he says. "Before I sell my madrones, I make sure that they are well rooted, strong and powerful plants. I do that by making them work. I tell them, 'I'm going to stop watering you, so you have to build your root system.'
"I also tell them, 'Don't get used to me, because I'm going to die, but you're going to go on,'" he continues. "Everything you do in life should be with the thought of what's to come when you're gone. That's the madrone way."
Yes, it's true — Prochoroff, 68, regularly talks to his madrones. He also put them first when it came time to design and construct the couple's hilltop cabin. To protect the trees and their roots, he used rainwater collection and solar power systems, which negated the need for drilling holes for utilities in the limestone. In one greenhouse, Prochoroff keeps an old clock radio tuned to a classical station. The music's positive vibrations soothe and energize seedlings, he says.
Unusual? Maybe. But for Prochoroff, his connection to Texas madrones runs long and deep. It began at age 24, when he began to question his purpose in life.
"I hitchhiked to the Big Bend, walked into the desert and followed a deer trail into a canyon," he recalls. "I got to the top and sat down on a rock. I was panting hard when a big hummingbird flew up to me, eye to eye. Then she flew over to a tree. I stared and thought, 'That's the most beautiful tree I've ever seen!'"
As he was leaving Big Bend, Prochoroff asked a park ranger about the tree.
"Oh, that was a madrone," the man replied. "They're impossible to grow." That's all Prochoroff needed to hear. Impossible? That sounds like something for me, he decided.
Prochoroff returned to Austin and later worked in the commercial nursery business. Whenever he could find time, he combed the Hill Country for madrones, met with madrone experts and grew the trees in pots. None survived, until he took up his life's work in Hill Country greenhouses.
"I've learned the right way to grow madrones are these greenhouses that use shade cloth, rainwater and sliding doors," Prochoroff says. "Now my germination rate is 80 to 85 percent, and seedling survival is high."
Mark Rutledge, Capital Farm Credit Austin office president, marvels at his customer's enthusiasm for the special trees.
"The passion that Mike has for madrones is the passion we all look for in life," Rutledge says. "That's one of the things I enjoy most about my job — getting to see when a passion and property connect. And they certainly do at The Madrone Way."
Article and photos by Sheryl Smith-Rodgers.