Reading about San Francisco celebrating the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), I realized 2015 also marks the approximate centennial of the arrival of one of the best trees for our local landscapes: the Marina strawberry tree (Arbutus Marina). We designated it as a “Star Performer” in the new edition of “Tree to Know in Napa Valley” (UC Master Gardeners of Napa County, 2015)
A World’s Fair celebrating the engineering feat of the completion of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire, the PPIE created a 635-acre “imagined walled city of antiquity” near the waterfront of San Francisco. Most of my life, I’ve known the site as the Palace of Fine Arts. This year, San Francisco has been holding a citywide commemoration of that event. (Check it out at: http://www.ppie100.org/
As World’s Fairs tend to do, the PPIE included all manner of arts and technology, exhibition halls, and amusement zone, as it says on the PPIE website.
It goes on to say: “... the planners selected Harbor View, a marshy section of the city’s northern shore known today as the Marina District. In just three years, laborers cleared the area of structures and debris and filled the mud flats with sand dredged from the bay.”
Though somewhat foggy, there is a connection between the Marina district, the Panama Pacific International Exposition and this wonderful tree variety, the ‘Marina’ strawberry tree.
Digging into my tree and plant files, I found a Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, Inc. article on Arbutus Marina, a cultivated variety they introduced into the nursery trade in 1984. They propagated it by rooting cuttings from a single tree — the mother of all Marinas. Here is how they trace the lineage (I paraphrase):
It is probable that the original specimen arrived in San Francisco in 1917 for the Exposition in a consignment of plants from Europe. (A typo or a different event? The PPIE ran from Feb. 20 to Dec. 4, 1915). Nurseryman Charles Abrahams, owner of Western Nursery on Lombard Street in the Marina district, propagated a few plants by cuttings.
When Western Nursery had a closing sale, Eric Walther purchased a boxed specimen of the plant for Strybing Arboretum. Victor Reiter then propagated cuttings from it in 1933. He planted a specimen in his garden in 1942, where it eventually reached a height and spread of 40 feet.
Saratoga Hort obtained propagating material from that source, evaluated its performance and offered it for sale in the trade in 1984 with the name Arbutus ‘Marina’ commemorating the location of Western Nursery and “one of California’s early plantsmen, Charles Abrahams.”
Now, after just 31 years in the nursery trade, cuttings from a single tree brought here from Europe 100 years ago have become untold thousands of specimens thriving in landscapes throughout the mid-California climate range.
Arbutus Marina bears a strong resemblance to our Western native madrone (Arbutus menziesii) but it is far easier to grow in the nursery and landscape. The Saratoga Hort. article states Marina “is probably a hybrid between A. X andrachnoides (one parent of which is A. unedo) and A. canariensis (The latter is also indeed sometimes given as a variant of A. unedo.).”
Whatever its exact genetic identity may be, the tree is a beautiful, broadleaf evergreen with interesting bark colors and texture, lovely flowers, colorful fruit and of moderate stature suitable for limited garden spaces.
Napa is home to numerous good specimens. As noted in “Trees to Know in Napa Valley,” there is a nice row of them at 1710 Soscol Ave. You’ll see them out front in the landscape adjacent to Soscol Avenue as you drive in to the Agriculture Commissioners Office and the UC Cooperative Extension Office.