Native Plant of the Month - Manzanita

Town mouse and I had so much fun sharing a post when we did the December Native Plant of the Month (Toyon), we're doing it again. First my take on the indigenous natives that grow here, then Town Mouse writes, perhaps more garden-oriented topics.

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.

Well, the first thing that comes to mind for me is: Is it a shrub? Is it a tree? Is it a groundcover? Because manzanita can be all that, depending on the species and cultivar you choose. Above, the pretty blossoms of A. pajaroensis, which I planted in my front garden. Now, I'm quite sure I read this cultivar grows to 4 feet high, but I recently found out they actually grow to 4 meters high. See 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).


Christine said…
Wow, guys- good teamwork! I've read that bumble and carpenter bees drill the holes through some flowers- wouldn't that be something to catch on the camera! And speaking of cameras, every photo looks fabulous, but then you do have some pretty snazzy models! Any average growth rates from your shrubby varieties? I'm getting impatient with mine.
noel said…
manzanitas are quite striking especially at this time of the year in sonoma when all the other plants are a somber siena color and the bark is quite striking....wonderful post
Randy Emmitt said…
Very good article! The holes in the flowers I have seen this done on blueberries by carpenter bees, never a wasp. Then we also found small butterflies using the hole made by the bees to get the nectar.
Brad said…
Great post ladies. Manzanitas are wonderful plants. I'm jealous of country mouse's manzanita that came with the house. Regarding their various heights, evergreen qualities, and bee likeability they're a bit like ceanothus. Strange that Caltrans and other commercial plantings have just started to use these guys.
Anonymous said…
NIce post, I love the grey leaves & pink blossoms of the A. pajaroensis. Maybe I'll try one...what is best for full sun in heavy clay if I want a taller variety....6-8 ft or so.
Anonymous said…
Hi Mice, yes, teamwork! Manzanita seems the perfect California plant, having all the different types for usefulness in gardens and the wild. I love the branching wood and think it would be great fun to do the pruning. Good show! :-)
NellJean said…
When I first saw these growing, far to the west of where I garden, I thought them most exotic looking. I didn't know there was such a dramatic story amongst the blossoms.
Carol said…
I will join most people in loving the color, form and movement of your Arctostaphylos. The flowers are so delicate and seem to be great nectar sources. It would be great to see the bears munching the berries... they can be so careless and break branches however. I have seen hummingbirds make holes into flowers too. Lovely informative post. Beautiful photos! ;>)
What a great post, very informative and inspiring. I have a manzanita branch I cut when I lived in CA and it is polished and set in a base. I use it for my earrings to hang on; I love it.

I would love to grow this plant but I bet it isn't hardy in this zone. I'll just have to visit it vicariously, I guess.
Susan Morrison said…
Nice post! I think manzanita's is the native most evocative of California - even more so than oaks for me.

But I must admit I get impatient at times waiting for a new one to grow up!
I've been fortunate enough to see a Manzantia in bloom, and they are lovely. Those holes in the flowers remind me of what the carpenter bees do to my Columbines, only they make much smaller, less obvious holes than whatever is doing that to your Manzanita blooms. Or maybe it's just less obvious on a Columbine because the holes are on the spurs.