January's plant of the month has interesting names: Arctostaphylos (the botanical name for this plant) means bear berry and manzanita (the common name for this plant) means little apple. Yet though named for its berries, it's the beautiful sinuous branches and red-brown bark that most people really love about this tough shrub.
And the clusters of small, beautifully formed flowers.
People aren't the only ones who like the flowers...
In this next picture, besides the ant (who I'm sure is up to no good) you can see small holes where wasps (I think it's wasps that do this) have snuck in and stolen the nectar - without doing the flower the service of pollination.
As I walked around taking photos for this post, I became intrigued at the variability between plants. Some have no flowers, some are covered, and some are already setting berries.
I also noticed a big difference in the budding flowers on different plants -- and Town Mouse and I believe there may be more than one species growing locally at my place. Some budding inflorescences are skinny and drooping with long things that look like skinny leaves (I'm so sure there is a Botanese term for these!)
And some are spreading and chubby in aspect, with shorter leaf thingies:
Some are also pinker than others, but that is expected within one species. I don't have any definitive answers right now. I have keyed them out as Arctostaphylos tomentosa crustacea - but maybe not all are crustacea. I'm going to have to try out my heavyweight Jepson manual on them! A. tomentosa (which means hairy) is not likely to be cultivated any time soon as there are so many fine and less hirsute species. But they do get big interesting burls, which means they are stump sprouters. Not all manzanitas are like that though. There are all kinds growing all over the state, not just in chaparral.
I do also have a few "store bought" manzanita plants: the well-known "Dr Hurd" - a tall tree-like form, and "Winter Glow" a nice low spreader, slow to grow but pretty where it has taken.
Dr Hurd could be a problem as far as interbreeding with the indigenous ones, but I'm told that the low spreader won't interbreed as its form is so different.
Native Americans around here used to make cider from the berries, as well as a kind of pinole (meal) that they dried into balls and ate like candy. The hard wood was also used for tools and bows.
Another pretty aspect of manzanita are the rosy glowing new leaves.
I love how they catch the light. But you can see that these plants are a bit hairy and messy. I'm pruning them up as I've blogged about in the past, but I'm going to wait till they go dormant in summer to do any more. Manzanitas do take formative pruning but you don't want to mess with Mother Nature too much here.
As far as propagation, I read they are easy from cuttings, harder from seeds - you have to use hot water or a file to get through the tough coat. I do want to try and grow some from cuttings sometime.
And now over to you Town Mouse for your views on this wonderful shrub.
Mr. Manzanita's Favorite Manzanita, at Dry Stone Gardens. Regardless, right now we're probably at about 3 feet, and I won't even mind if we get to 5 feet.
After that, I'll have to get out the pruners. Regardless, at least they won't grow to 20-30 feet, as the manzanita I saw on a recent hike at Mount Tamalpaias.
Contrast with that the low-growing ground cover manzanitas. I have Emerald Carpet,which is just starting to blossom. With bright green leaves, this manzanita is a popular ground cover and grows to 1 foot high by 6 feet. For me, Emerald Carpet gets by with very little water in clay soil, though I've heard they tolerate some water. I also planted some A. uva-ursi Point Reyes, similar dimensions but more greyish foilage. (For those who care, both "Arctostaphylos" and "uva ursi" mean Bear grape, see this article). Here's Emerald Carpet, next to deer grass and Eriogonum "Shasta Sulfur" in the side strip in front of the house.
In in the back garden, in part shade with no summer water, I've planted A. hookeri "Wayside". This manzanita is 2-3 feet high, spreads nicely, and has been bright green year round, with abundant white flowers in February and March. Here's how it looks from the sunroom.
Moving in a little closer, you can see the graceful shape and bright green.
And a little closer yet. Here, you can see the first buds.
So yes, with manzanitas, you really can have it all. Of course there's no guarantee that they follow the rules and actually grow to the advertised size (and not larger). But most are very drought-tolerant, many are green year round, a nice contrast to the greyish green foilage of many other California plants. And, as Country Mouse already said, they're the perfect food for the hungry bees that decide to have a look around on a warm January or February day....
and offer berries for birds and bears (sorry, no photo of that).