Are madrone trees mean?

Madrone tree
Photo credit: brian
Q:

I have a small grove of Madrones behind my house. I have put a couple of annual beds under them but nothing seems to grow under them. I have looked all over the net to no avail on this issue. I did amend the soil in the beds. I also planted a few Dogwood trees under them from tiny sticks. The trees grew last summer but then the leaves started browning at the tips and curling up. I was watering the trees every two to three days during summer. What am I doing wrong?

- Josephine County, Oregon
A:

Some trees do suppress the growth of other plants through chemical secretions from their roots. This is called allelopathy. I don't think madrone trees do this but there might be a slight suppression. I think it is more likely that the madrone trees are just better at pulling all the moisture out of the soil and shading the understory plants. Even if you are watering the other plants regularly the soil may also be a bit depleted and the madrone trees will suck up all the water you try to give the understory plants. I have had the same situation with large maple trees and other flowers and shrubs planted nearby. One combination that has worked well is to plant bulbs under the larger trees. The early bulbs get first crack at the water in late winter or spring before the trees get active. Then the bulbs dry down during late spring and summer when the trees dominate.

Steve Renquist
Horticulture Extension Specialist
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