Scientific Name: Saurauia madrensis
Common Names: Moquillo
Plant Type: Large shrub or small tree. Cloud forest evergreen.
Environment: Part shade to full sun in cooler areas, rich, moist soil with infrequent to regular watering. Protect from wind and hard freezes. At its best in the fog belt. It does well in containers, but must be watered conscientiously.
Bloom: Summer through Fall.
Uses: Bearing striking red and green foliage and very showy flowers, it is quite suitable for planting around homes, in gardens, and public parks where the climate is mild, as it is perfectly suited to the mild and foggy SF Bay Area.
Once a common plant in certain areas of its native home, Saurauia madrensisis now a rare plant endemic to high elevations (6000-10,000 ft.) of Chiapas, Mexico.
It was discovered and named in 1981 by Barbara Keller, former collections manager here at SFBG, and Dennis Breedlove, Botany Curator at the California Academy of Sciences who was primarily responsible for bringing back from Chiapas so many of the plants that are represented in our Mesoamerican Cloud Forest.
At that time, Breedlove described this Saurauia as a "weedy tree" native to the Sierra Madre region of Mexico, but because of the gorgeous red and green foliage and showy white flowers of this magnificent plant, he recognized its potential for cultivation and brought seeds back for propagation.
Saurauia madrensis is now known to grow wild in only a few localities in the Sierra Madre, in cloud forests and montane rain forests, on steep slopes, and along ravines with pines, oaks and liquidambars. The Red List of Mexican Cloud Forest Trees (2011) lists it as Endangered. Once again, SFBG is a repository for diversity, successfully growing plants that have been diminished in their native habitat. Being a cloud forest native, it grows superbly in our foggy, coastal California site.
The scientific name honors both a person and a place. "Saurauia," the genus, was described in 1801 by Willdenow, an Austrian, who honored Franz Graf von Saurau, a friend and advisor to the emperor and a supporter of the natural sciences. The specific epithet, or second name, "madrensis," honors the mountain range, the Sierra Madre, where the plant was found.
There are nearly 300 species of Saurauia found in tropical Asia, Australia, and Central to South America. It is the only living genus in the family, Actinidiaceae, whose natural distribution includes areas outside of Asia.
A large shrub or tree growing from seven up to 40 ft., Saurauia madrensis can be upright or somewhat gawky. Its leaves are large and leathery, up to eleven inches long, are prominently veined, and are covered with reddish fuzz. The new growth has been described as "especially nice with silky-violet iridescent hairs," the plant "appearing as a giant, hairy-bronze loquat." Striking white flowers are borne in clusters of a dozen or more. It is a relative of kiwi fruit (Actinidia deliciosa) and, like the kiwi, needs both a male and a female plant to set fruit.
When fruits are produced, they are small, greenish berries, which are very sweet in taste. Like the kiwi fruit, the pulp is mucilaginous, sticky, and filled with many small seeds. The fruit is pretty much unknown outside of its native area in Mexico. Local people in Chiapas collect the fruits to eat and also sell them along with other fruits at local markets.
Saurauia madrensis is a beautiful, small tree for shade that's perfectly suited to the mild and foggy San Francisco Bay Area where there is very little frost. It seems to prefer locations which have partial shade. It should be planted in well drained, rich, most soils only. It will also require infrequent to regular watering, not too much wind, and protection from hard freezes. It does well in containers, but must be watered regularly. It is a lovely addition to a foliage garden almost anywhere, just make sure to give it enough room. It will quickly get large enough to spread up and over the tops of smaller plants.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Mona Bourell. Photos by James Gaither, Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell, Corey Barnes, David Kruse-Pickler and SFBG Library Archives.