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30 April . 2016

If a Tree Could Talk

Sweetwater preserves 800-year-old Texas Madrone tree

Sweetwater is home to residents of all ages, including one that’s estimated to be 800 years old. The oldest living being in Sweetwater is a rare Texas Madrone tree, located along the trail that follows Pedernales Summit Parkway, the community’s main thoroughfare. As you drive – or hike – into Sweetwater, just look to the right after crossing the second bridge to see this spectacular tree, with its striking reddish-brown bark and ancient gnarled branches. The tree is especially impressive at night, when it is illuminated by dramatic uplighting. The Madrone is about 30 feet tall, which might not seem particularly impressive by tree standards, but that height makes it a giant specimen for this extremely slow-growing species. The exact age of Sweetwater’s Madrone tree has not been confirmed, but 800 years is a very solid estimate, according to Robert Long, project manager for the community.

“One of our landscape architects had recently worked for another Hill Country community with a large Madrone tree, and its age was scientifically proven to be 600 years,” said Robert. “The architect said that because our Sweetwater Madrone was significantly larger than the 600-year-old tree, he felt very comfortable with the 800-year estimate.” Discovering the tree was completely accidental, as it had remained hidden among a thick growth of cedar trees, even after Pedernales Summit Parkway and much of the community’s infrastructure was completed. “We were driving past one fall day, and the landscape architect saw a single branch with bright red berries sticking out from the cedars,” Robert says. “Right away, he suspected it was a Madrone. Because the branch was at least 15 feet off the ground, he knew it was probably a large one, but we had no idea just how old and grand it was.”

In the next few weeks, the cedar trees were carefully cleared away to reveal the Madrone in its full glory, but most importantly to prevent the cedars from depriving the ancient tree of water and light. “Cedars are not native to the Hill Country, and they take a lot of water out of the ground,” Robert explains. Apart from pruning dead and damaged branches from the Madrone, the tree thrives with virtually no maintenance. “The Texas Madrone is so well -adapted to the rocky, limestone slopes of the Hill Country that it is virtually impossible to propagate,” Robert says. “That characteristic, along with its slow growth rate and beautiful red bark, make it such a rare and stunning tree.”

Spring and fall are two of the best times of the year to see Sweetwater’s ancient Madrone tree, which is also beneficial for the community’s wildlife. The bright red fall berries are a favorite food of birds, and the colorful, fragrant spring flower offer nectar for Sweetwater’s resident honeybees. Sweetwater is home to more Texas Madrone trees, Robert says, although we have not yet seen any others nearly as old and large as the iconic specimen along Pedernales Summit Parkway. Given enough time, however, they will grow right along with Sweetwater.