It’s not hard to love the iconic Manzanita. There’s something for every season with evergreen foliage in colors and textures from blue to glossy green, clusters of dangling, urn-shaped, pink or white flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring, which are followed by their namesake red berries (Manzanita means “little apples” in Spanish) beloved by birds. But best of all is their gorgeous bark and twisting branch structure. Colored in a rainbow of shades of orange, red, purple and brown, the outer bark peels off to reveal a smooth satin-y bark underneath. They are terrific wildlife plants as well, providing nectar for butterflies, hummingbirds and native insects as well as the aforementioned berries.
Manzanita is the common name for species of the genus Arctostaphylos which comes from the Greek words 'arktos' meaning "bear" and 'staphyle' which means "grapes" in reference to bears eating the fruit. They are evergreen plants that range from groundcover (as small as 2 inches) to small trees (up to 20 feet tall) and occur naturally in the chaparral of Pacific North America, where they grow from the deserts to the sea. Their burly trunks and tough leaves have allowed them to survive in meager soils and an arid climate and they have adapted to habitats from sand dunes to steep mountain slopes to rangelands. Manzanitas are typically located in regions where the heat and dryness of summer are offset by cool air in the evening coupled with higher rainfall totals in winter. This is especially true of most of the cultivar and hybrid species grown for landscape purposes in California.
There are 105 species and subspecies of manzanita, 95 of which are found in the Mediterranean climate and colder mountainous regions of California. In fact, some manzanita species are among the rarest plants in the world!
The Arctostaphylos family Ericaceae is highly mycorrhizal (associated with symbiotic fungi), which allows them to survive in many harsh environments. However, it also makes them very susceptible to over watering and fertilizing.
Caring for your Manzanita:
Most Manzanita varieties prefer light, well-drained soil, although the low-growing ground covers will tolerate heavier soils. They do not like their roots sitting in water for any length of time, but they will tolerate a little more water around their roots in heavier soil if on a slope. Avoid overhead watering as leaf and root fungal problems can occur; give it only infrequent deep watering once it’s established. (The establishment period of a plant is considered 2 to 3 growing seasons which equals 1 – 1.5 years from planting.) Water only occasionally in the summer months. Don’t plant Arctostaphylos in soils rich in organic matter and don’t fertilize. Their greatest requirement is for good air circulation, so don't crowd them either. Finally, once planted, have patience as manzanitas are generally slow growers with growth occurring spring into summer.
Which Manzanita Should I Choose?
· Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet'
· Arctostaphylos 'Pacific Mist'
· Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Green Supreme'
· Arctostaphylos 'John Dourley'
Medium Sized Shrubs
· Arctostaphylos x 'Sunset'
· Arctostaphylos densiflora 'Howard McMinn'
· 'Baby Bear' Manzanita
· Arctostaphylos glauca or Big Berry Manzanita
· Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Dr. Hurd'
· Arctostaphylos Mama Bear Manzanita
Manzanitas are an extremely useful landscape plant in our climate zone because they are evergreen - always looking green and healthy even in the hottest, driest part of the summer, are highly drought-tolerant, have picturesque bark and attractive flowers and berries, and come in many sizes and growth patterns. In fact, there is one for every garden situation. Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet', A. uva-ursi (the Bearberry), and other low-growing manzanitas are extremely valuable evergreen groundcovers for dry slopes. Larger varieties, such as Arctostaphylos. 'Dr. Hurd,' can be grown as individual specimens, and pruned to emphasize the striking pattern and colors of the branches. Manzanita can be used as a low to no water solution to replace many common landscape plants. For example, you can use Arctostaphylos 'Mama Bear' to replace privet or Arctostaphylos 'Wayside' to replace ivy.
So, if you love using California native plants or if you want to try to dip you toe in the California native plant pool, why don’t you give Manzanita a try?