‘Sacred bark’

Leaves and berries of the Cascara tree (courtesy Oregon State University, landscape)

Cascara is a medium-sized deciduous tree or large shrub that can reach 33-feet tall.

Spanish conquerors found several native people using the bark in the 1600s. The conquerors named the mottled gray bark “Sacred bark.”

Processed bark became famous in the 1800s. It was exported to the European markets.

As one might have guessed, the Pacific Northwest native tree populations declined through overharvesting.

Rising Star

Who would have thought that a local bark could become famous?

The commercial product was called ‘Cascara sagrada’ and it was used in more than 20 percent of the U.S. products in the late 1990’s. The industry at that time had an estimated value of $400 million.

In May 2002, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of this tree in over-the-counter drug products and found the use potentially carcinogenic.  

Cascara flowers (courtesy of Oregon State University, Landscape)


The outer bark has light splotching (sometimes from lichens). The inner bark is smooth and yellowish. Exposed inner bark will oxidize and turn brown.

Fresh cut bark is intensely bitter and will overpower the taste buds—for hours. Fresh cut, dried bark will cause vomiting and violent diarrhea.


The sickly, sweet fruit can be eaten cooked or raw. The berries are deep purple or black with yellow pulp. The berries usually contain two or three hard, smooth seeds.

In the past, the food industry used cascara as a flavoring agent for liquors, soft drinks, ice cream, and baked goods.

NOTE: The fruit and honey both have a laxative effect.

When to Collect

Bark collected in the spring or early summer can be easily peeled off the stem. Bark will be aged and dried for at least a year before use.


Cascara tree bark is a strong laxative that should be used carefully.

It can induce labor in pregnant women and transfer active compounds to nursing infants.

There are several precautions about this bark and warnings that it may be carcinogenic.  

Where Found

This tree is native to northern California up to British Columbia and from the Pacific Coast east into Montana. Leaves are oval up to 6-inches long with fine edge serrations. Small, green flowers develop into blue-black fruits.  

Cascara plant grow near streams in mixed forests. Check under big leaf maple trees–they are often an understory there.

Safe Uses

The fall yellow leaf color is pleasant (color varies based on light) and branching is interesting. Cascara does not adapt well to urban settings and is better in a woodland park or garden.

Cascara is a nice ornamental that can help prevent soil erosion and provide wildlife food and habitat. The fruit is a favorite of the Pileated woodpecker. Bears, raccoons, deer, and other wildlife also consumed the berries.

–Oregon State landscape plants (https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/rhamnus-purshiana and https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/frangula-purshiana)
–Wikipedia, Rhamnus purshiana (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhamnus_purshiana)
–Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (http://nativeplantspnw.com/cascara-frangula-purshiana/)
–Trees & Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Gardens, Grant & Grant

Myrtlewood tree (Umbellularia californica)

The Myrtlewood Tree is a very special broadleaf hardwood which is also an evergreen species.  This is not to be confused with the Pacific Myrtle shrub which also grows along the coast.

The Myrtlewood tree grows to heights of 60 to 120 feet, growing at a slow pace of 1- to 12-inches during each of its first few years of life.   At this pace, the Myrtlewood tree may take from 80 to 120 years to reach its full size.


The range of Myrtlewood tree, also known as the California-laurel, extends from Reedsport, Oregon to San Diego, California within 160 miles of the Pacific Ocean. 

Myrtlewood comes in a wide variety of colors and is well-known for being one of the world’s most beautiful woods. The colors that appear are often a result of the minerals in the soil where it grows.


Making furniture, home decor and other gifts out of the Myrtlewood tree became popular in the early 1900s and has continued ever since. Woodworkers in Oregon love working with the wood because of the beauty and many types of finishes it provides.

In addition to being appreciated by humans, Myrtlewood provides food and cover for various animals. Its seeds are an important food source for squirrels, woodrats, mice, and birds. Deer browse young shoots during the summer.

Good as gold

There is a very interesting story about Myrtlewood back in 1933. “The Oregon town where money grows on trees and wood is as good as cash” describes how the wood was used as money on the Oregon coast. See https://www.opb.org/artsandlife/series/history/myrtlewood-money-north-bend-oregon-great-depression/ for more details.

When visiting the southern coast of Oregon be sure to stop in one of the “Myrtlewood Factories” that sell Myrtlewood products. Some even give tours of wood working operations.

Take the opportunity to experience walking through Myrtlewood trees yourself at forest trails and roadside parks near the southern Oregon coast.

Pacific Madrone – (Arbutus menziesii)

While traveling in coastal Oregon watch for a tree with red bark and broad evergreen leaves. This tree is a Pacific Madrone.

Various conifer trees dominate the Coastal range but if you look you will notice the Pacific Madrone. Madrone is a broadleaved evergreen tree and a member of the heath family (Ericaceae).

It is distinguished by its smooth trunk, orange-red bar that peels when the tree is mature. The peeling bark reveals a green satiny, smooth stem.

Seed & Blossoms

Pacific madrone will grow to a height of 125 feet tall and may grow up to 4 feet in diameter. At three to five years old, it will begin to produce seed.

Trees begin flowering in early spring, from mid-March to May, depending on the elevation. The bell-shaped blossoms are dense, drooping clusters (terminal panicles) of small, white flowers.

The fruit is a berry (0.3 to 0.5 inches), that ripens in the fall, turning from yellow-green to bright red or reddish-orange. The berries were used by wildlife and humans for food, decoration, fish bait, and medicine.

The wood is used for furniture, flooring, turnings, paneling, veneer for hardwood plywood faces and core stock, pulpwood, and firewood.

Links & References

To get a PDF fact sheet about the Pacific Madrone from Oregon Department of Forestry see: https://www.oregon.gov/ODF/Documents/ForestBenefits/PacificMadrone.pdf

Sacred Trees

For some more cultural/spiritual thoughts about the Madrone see http://www.arbutusarts.com/sacred-trees.html

“On the British Columbia West Coast, the Salish Nation also honors the Arbutus Tree as their ‘Tree of Knowledge’ because it knows how to find the sun. It twists and turns and somehow knows to drop one branch when there is not enough sunlight and it is shaded and it will grow a new one where the sun can reach it.”