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Manzanita and Madrone Perches

The tree leaning out over the water is a madrone in Washington, USA. Commonly used to build parrot perches!

If you have purchased a red or sun bleached curvy branch for your parrot to perch on, odds are it once belonged to a tree or shrub somewhere on the west coast of the United States or the Mediterranean region of Eurasia. However, if you are like me, you might be curious as to what the tree or shrub looks like in nature.

I have been fortunate enough to visit and live in some amazing places in the western hemisphere. One of the things I like most about exploring a new place is identifying the endemic or unique flora of that region. Therefore, I was no stranger to the term Manzanita or Madrone before I heard it in the parrot world.

However, I have always been curious as to the difference between Manzanita and Madrone, which seem to be interchangeably used when discussing perch types. Through my investigation I found that Manzanita is merely the common name for a group of plants that belong to the genus Arctostaphylos. Whereas Madrone is the common name for a group of plants that belong to the genus Arbutus. Though manzanita and madrone belong to a different genus they are both members of family Ericaceae and furthermore, subfamily of Arbutoideae.

Ericaceae are a family of flowering plants that are known as heath or heather. They typically grow in acidic and infertile growing conditions and include many popular plants like cranberry, blueberry, huckleberry and rhododendron. The family is often divided into 9 subfamilies, 126 genera, and about 4250 species. One of the subfamiles is Arubutoideae which contains both genera: Arctostaphylos and Arbutus (in addition to 4 others).

First I will explore the genus Arctostaphylos, which is comprised of about 60 species, most of which are Manzanitas. Arctostaphylos are almost exclusively evergreen (keep their leaves year round), and range from groundcover shrubs to small trees. The two main groups within Arctostaphylos are Manzanita and Bearberries.

Bearberries have three species and can grow in arctic and subarctic climates but have circumpolar distribution in North America and Eurasia. Common Bearberry or Kinnikinnick was the first arctostaphylos species that I encountered when I began working at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It was a unique plant that I had never seen before. It covered large swaths of rocky, seemingly inhospitable soil along mountainsides. The plant itself had thick leathery evergreen leaves with small vibrant red berries that punched through the thin layer of snow. The reddish-tan colored, low-growing branches snaked across the ground in a webbing pattern. As I moved to further west, this groundcover continued with me, and though it makes for a neatly landscaped mountainside it is a far cry from parrot perch material.

The second group of Arctostaphylos plants are parrot perch material, and they are the Mananitas, which are found in the Chaparral of western North America from British Columbia, down along the Pacific coast, and into Mexico. The vast majority grows in the Mediterranean climate of California, many of which are endemic to their respective regions. These species can range from a few centimeters tall all the way up to 6 meters. They typically have green oval leaves with white or pale pink clusters of flowers (winter and spring) and red berries (summer and autumn). The bark is a characteristic smooth orange or red, which grows in a twisting contorted pattern. This last feature makes them ideal for the development of parrot perches.

Aside from general ascetics, Manzanita branches are very slow to decay and last many years, both attached and detached from the plant. Although these branches may seem ready to go straight from the tree into your parrot’s habitat, it is very important that the branches are properly cleaned and disinfected before being introduced to your parrot.

Finally, I will explore the genus Arbutus, which contains about 12 species that are native to warm temperate regions of the Mediterranean, western Europe, Canary Islands, and North America.

Despite seeing my favorite broad-leafed evergreen tree on a day-to-day basis near my home in the Issy Alps of western Washington, my first Madrone sighting was in Texas. During graduate school, Apryle and I made a winter trip to Big Bend National Park where we were fortunate enough to spot a Texas Madrone. In retrospect this was a rare inland sighting of the tree that I have come to associate strongly with the Pacific coast. The smooth dark red bark stood out among the green grasses, succulents, and cacti of the Chisos Mountains.

Since moving to Washington, Apryle and I encounter this amazing tree frequently on our trail runs. The Pacific Madrone is a tree that has flaky bark with colors ranging from orange to green. They prefer well-drained locations, so they are often seen on rocky cliff sides. They also produce red berries that contrast their pale waxy green leaves. The tall (up to 23 m) trees frequently drop their contorted red branches that we sometimes collect to utilize for our own parrots (disinfected first of course).

In addition to the Texas and Pacific Madrone that I am familiar with, there are also another six species in the Americas, mostly found in Mexico, with one other species found in Arizona and New Mexico. There are four other species around the world; two located in southeast Europe and southwest Asia and one endemic to Libya and another endemic to the Canary Islands.

A study by Hileman et al. found that the Arbutus species of the Mediterranean basin were more closely related to genus Arctostaphylos than other North American Arbutus species. This is an interesting finding that further interconnects these two genera in the subfamily Arbutoideae.

Along with genus Arctostaphylos (Manzanitas), genus Arbutus (Madrones) are unique trees that add to the diversity of flora in their respective habitats. After cut, disinfected, and hardware has been added, Manzanita and Madrone are difficult to tell apart, but both of these plants are quite different and are important to their respective ecosystems. These trees should be respected and the wood should be harvested utilizing sustainable practices. When the process is completed properly and the branches are adequately disinfected, they make excellent perches with plenty of natural variation in size and contour in order to maximize your parrots foot health and dexterity.

References:

Hileman, L. (2001). Phylogeny and biogeography of the Arbutoideae (Ericaceae): Implications for the Madrean-Tethyan hypothesis. Systematic Botany, 26(1), 131.

Wells, P. (1968). NEW TAXA, COMBINATIONS, AND CHROMOSOME NUMBERS IN ARCTOSTAPHYLOS (ERICACEAE). Madroño, 19(6), 193-210. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41423299

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