An Arbutus named ‘Marina’

Arbutus ‘Marina’ has become well-known and frequently planted in California as well as worldwide. The Internet contains many references to this handsome tree but often with erroneous information regarding its origin and naming, which is then repeated elsewhere (see Internet Inaccuracies at the end of this article). The actual history of this tree is fascinating on its own – this article pulls together various primary documents, arranged to tell that story.

Some Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation committee members
L to R: Ernest Wertheim, Warren Roberts, Paul Doty, Nevin Smith, Hank Hellbush, Bob Perry, Barrie Coate, Ron Lutsko. (photo by Carol Coate)

In 1984, Arbutus ‘Marina’ was introduced to California horticulture by the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation (SHRF), who said this in their Plant Culture Data Sheet:

“The origins of this plant are still unexplained although it is probable that it arrived in San Francisco in 1917 for the [Panama Pacific International] Exposition as part of a consignment of plants from Europe [likely the French/Italian Riviera]. Subsequently a few plants were propagated by Charles Abrahams [sic] at his Western Nursery on Lombard Street in the Marina district … The cultivar name ‘Marina’ commemorates the location of the Western Nursery and is a tribute to its owner and one of California’s early plantsman, Charles Abrahams [sic].”

The Panama Pacific Exposition ran from Jan 1, 1915 through Jan 1, 1917. I thought at first that SHRF’s date of ‘1917’ date was a typo, but that is the closing year when all the landscaping and temporary buildings were demolished or pulled out. But there was a typo in owner of Western Nursery, who was Charles Abraham, not ‘Abrahams’.

A postcard showing the buildings of the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina district
(note that the Golden Gate Bridge has not yet been built!)

Here is more about Charles Abraham (Found SF, Blackstone Court: Unfinished History):

“In 1885, German Florist Charles Abraham (1851-1929) leased land which he later bought … adjoining the Blackstone property. Abraham’s Western Nursery thrived on the lake-enriched soil. He filled in the lagoon’s former high water line. Abraham became one the premier nurserymen of Norther California. Utilizing San Francisco’s direct steamship connections to Australia, New Zealand and South America, Abraham imported a wide range of sub-tropical plants, including the first bougainvillea and Italian olives introduced into California. Abraham donated plants for Golden Gate Park.”

And more (Noe Hill in San Francisco: Blackstone Court Historic District):

“Abraham House, 30 Blackstone Court, was constructed in 1885 by Charles Abraham, and enlarged by him in 1905. Abraham was the founder of Western Nursery, which operated on most of this block [Bounded by Lombard, Franklin, Gough, and Greenwich] from 1885-1947. Western Nursery was the last agricultural enterprise in the Cow Hollow/Marina District. An Australian peppermint tree and a Monterey Cypress appear to date from the nursery. (Adapted from San Francisco Planning Code: Article 10, Appendix H.)”

So, Charles (‘Charlie’) Abraham, would have been excited about the newly built Panama Canal, part of the celebration at the Pan Pacific Exposition. His nursery was also located quite close to the Exposition grounds so I have no doubt he was keenly aware of interesting plants imported for the event via this new, shorter trade route. [Here is the official poster of the exposition, by Perham Wilhelm Nahl (1869–1935), “The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules”]

A map of the Pan Pacific Exposition annotated with the location of Western Nursery (lower right, in green), the Abraham House (red), and Blackstone Court (the little gray ‘finger’).

Victor Reiter (1903-1986), another important plantsman and a founding member of the California Horticultural Society, was no stranger to Charlie Abraham. Victor writes in the California Horticultural Journal (Vol. XXIX, No.2):

“In the decaying, neglected old nursery on Lombard Street lurked many hidden beauties. The old man, recognizing the eagerness of his young visitor, uncovered his most precious items.”

The SHRF Plant Culture Data Sheet continues:

“… at the Closing Down sale of [Western Nursery] a boxed plant was purchased for the Strybing Arboretum by the Director, Eric Walther. Victor Reiter was able to propagate his stock from this plant in 1933. … [A] specimen of Arbutus ‘Marina’ is in the San Francisco garden of Victor Reiter, this was planted in 1942 and reached a height of forty feet [12m] with an equivalent spread.”

The original specimen of Arbutus ‘Marina’ in the Reiter garden. Unfortunately, the tree suffered storm damage in 2006 which required that it be cut down. (photo by Randy Baldwin)

San Marcos Growers of Santa Barbara, California, planted an Arbutus ‘Marina’ in their nursery garden in 1989, which was officially measured on July 24, 2013, for inclusion on the California Big Tree Registry (44ft, 10in tall, crown 53ft, 5in wide, trunk circumference 108in) (13.6m tall, crown 16.3m wide, trunk circumference 2.7m).

A. ‘Marina’ in the San Marcos Growers garden. (photo by Sima Kagan)

Arbutus ‘Marina’ generated a lot of excitement in the San Francisco Bay Area horticultural trade. Difficulties in propagation were eventually solved by tissue culture, making more stock plants more available to address the increasing demand. It has now become ubiquitous throughout California and other regions in which it is suitable to grow.

The spread of this beautiful tree into Europe is documented by botanist Jean-Pierre Demoly (Nouveaux hybrides d’arbousiers) translated by me, with some help from Google:

“A plant quite similar to the type of Arbutus ×reyorum is beginning to be distributed in France; it is A. ‘Marina’. The first specimens were brought to Courson in 1993 by the English nursery Madrona Nursery and this taxon received a merit from Courson in autumn 2002 (presented by the Pépinières botaniques armoricaines, de Grâces-Guingamp, Côtes-d’Armor). The most significant difference is the color of the flowers, which are partly pink in A. ‘Marina’. This color occurs randomly in A. unedo and more frequently in A. canariensis.”

If you are from California and have visited some of the famous botanic gardens of the French and Italian Riviera, you likely would have come across specimens of A. ×andrachnoides, a hybrid of A. andrache and A. unedo, which occurs naturally where the range of those two species overlap. You would have noticed it because of the beautiful cinnamon-colored bark, reminiscent of our native California Madrone, A. menziesii.

These Mediterranean gardens also contain other hybrids which are mentioned in Monsieur Demoly’s paper. I suspect that one of these gardens might have been the origin of the hybrid tree(s?) sent to the San Francisco 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition that later was named A. ‘Marina’.

A Brief Botany Break

Arbutus ×reyorum Dem., Nothosp. nov. (A. ×andrachnoides × A. canariensis Duham.), Bulletin de l’Association des parcs botaniques de France, N°38, 2004

Since Jean-Pierre Demoly suggests in his “Nouveaux hybrides d’arbousiers” that A. ‘Marina’ belongs in this recent hybrid classification, it is not uncommon, at least in Europe, to see this tree called Arbutus ×reyorum ‘Marina’.

In 2015, Monterey Bay Nursery, Royal Oaks (near Watsonville), California, introduced a chimeric variegated sport (occasionally seen in tissue-cultured plants):

“Our brand-new introduction, a very nicely variegated sport of ‘Marina’ that Manuel himself found in a production block. The leaves have a very clean, edge-variegation [the most stable], creamy white against the very deep green older leaves, with bright burgundy red stems showing behind both. In summer the white deepens to green, and by the following year those leaves will form a backdrop for those highly variegated new growth in spring, also deep coral pink flowers from early fall through spring. The crisp contrast and makes for a really clean look. As trees get larger the contrast becomes more dramatic, and the variegation seems stronger just due to increased foliage. As far as we can tell this grows about as fast and big as its parent variety, so we’re going to project final spec’s as being the same or just slightly smaller. Fruit set is slightly lower, which means they will be about as showy but an even better choice wherever foot traffic or debris cleanup is a consideration.”

New leaves of A. ‘Spring Frost’ showing variegation, with the pink flowers.

Internet Inconsistencies

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is a hybrid of the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) and our native California Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
The SHRF data sheet does mentions “The trunk of this tree in terms of character and colour is reminiscent of that of A. menziesii – the native California Madrone” but there are also other Arbutus species with similarly colored and textured bark, such as A. xalapensis (SE US & Mexico), A. andrachne (Greece), A. ×andrachnoides which is a naturally occurring hybrid of A. andrachne × A. unedo where their ranges overlap, and A. canariensis (Canary Islands). The idea that A. ‘Marina’ had A. menziesii as a parent is pure conjecture.

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is a California native plant
Related to the idea above, but perhaps fostered by the recent encouragement that A. ‘Marina’ is easier to grow in gardens that A. menziesii (which it certainly is) and therefore should be used in native plant gardens instead of the native Madrone.

Arbutus glandulosa ‘Marina’
More pure conjectured – A. glandulosa is a synonym for A. xalapensis, a SE US & Mexican species.

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is named for Marin County [just north of San Francisco]
This tree is named for the San Francisco Marina district for the reasons stated near the beginning of this article.

The Marina District location in San Francisco
(Marin county is to the North, on the other side of the Golden Gate.

The Strawberry Tree is Arbutus ‘Marina’.
Well, technically, A. unedo is the original Strawberry Tree. Since A. ‘Marina’ is similar in fruit and flower, it makes sense that this common name was shared with it. But these are very different plants – A. unedo tends to be naturally shrubby and is half the size of A. ‘Marina’, which ultimately becomes a large, single or multi-stemmed tree. Using only the common name Strawberry Tree would now seem to require qualification!

Potential Problems

The relatively fast growth and large size of A. ‘Marina’ should be considered during plant placement. New growth can, on occasion, be attacked by aphids, which cause associated sooty mold (ant control is a good preventative for this). Phytophthora root rot has been known to infect plants is poorly drained or over watered soils and can lead to sudden death or tree fall.

References and Links

Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, Inc. Arbutus ‘Marina’ – Plant Culture Data Sheet.

Coate, Carol & Barry. The Legacy of the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation, Pacific Horticulture.
Retrieved August 2021, from

Found SF. Sailing to Byzantium: 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.
Retrieved November 2021, from

National Park Service. Legacy of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Retrieved February 2023, from

Found SF. Blackstone Court: Unfinished History.
Retrieved May 2020, from

Noe Hill in San Francisco. San Francisco Historic District – Blackstone Court Historic District, Bounded by Lombard, Franklin, Gough, and Greenwich, Designated November 1987.
Retrieved May 2020, from

Reiter, Victor. 1967 Annual Award, California Horticultural Journal, April 1968 (Vol. XXIX, No. 2).
Retrieved July 2022, from

Demoly, Jean-Pierre. Nouveaux hybrides d’arbousiers, Bulletin de l’Association des parcs botaniques de France, N°38, 2004, pp 7-8, 11-12

San Marcos Growers. Arbutus ‘Marina’ – Marina Strawberry Tree.
Retrieved June 2021, from

Sullivan, Mike. Victor Reiter, Jr., San Francisco Trees.
Retrieved August 2020, from

Monterey Bay Nursery, Royal Oaks, California.
Retrieved January 2023, from

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