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Gorgeous evergreen manzanitas are winter standouts

January 5, 2019
Marie Narlock

Like people, some plants demand center stage. California poppies and lupine are springtime darlings, followed by fragrant sage in summer and crimson maples in fall. But what about the supporting players that work hard but never seem to get the limelight?

Cue the manzanitas. These subtle, gorgeous evergreens are winter standouts. The white or pink mini-bell flowers dangle in delicate panicles in winter and spring to the delight of bees and hummingbirds braving the cold. Summer and fall berries feed bears, deer, coyotes, foxes, quail and many other birds. Deer often avoid manzanita foliage that’s more than 3 years old.

But oh, that bark — sinewy and smooth, peeling and revealing, old and gnarled — in colors spanning cinnamon, burnt mahogany, chocolate brown, driftwood gray. Like cracks of lightning, manzanita bark illuminates gray days and reduces the winter drab factor.

Who needs look-at-me flowers when you can reach out and touch that bark?

Manzanitas grow on the dry slopes of chaparral and coastal range mountains, which is why we get to witness their quiet beauty on numerous Marin trails — from dry rocky slopes and ridges to the borders of pine and redwood forests to the exposed ocean-facing slopes of Point Reyes. Some even grow in serpentine soil where few other plants survive. Take a walk in China Camp, on the Shoreline trail, or on King Mountain to spot these austere treasures.

There are dozens of manzanita species, aka Arctostaphylos to plant nerds like me, most native to California. They are a promiscuous bunch, interbreeding freely to the point where it’s even hard for botanists to tell one species from another. They range from 2-inch ground huggers to 20-foot trees — and everything in between.

Manzanitas prefer full sun and thrive on little water once established, living 100 years or more and dispersing seeds that survive underground for hundreds of years further. Their elixir for long life? Co-mingling root fungi (mycorrhiza) with others in their own plant community, dramatically increasing the ability to absorb water and minerals, even in lousy soil. Thanks to their extensive roots, manzanitas are an excellent choice to control erosion on steep slopes.

All manzanitas are cousins to madrone, rhododendron, azalea and a host of edible berry-producing plants, including huckleberry, blueberry, and cranberry. The berries are indeed edible. Just ask the Native Americans, who ate manzanita berries raw, dried, fresh and crushed for cider. (Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish.) They chewed the leaves to curb nausea and settle upset stomachs, and made poultices from soaked leaves to combat poison oak rashes. One tribe dried and smoked manzanita leaves for good luck.

Botanically speaking, the leaves actually do have special powers: they boast tiny pore-like stomates on both leaf sides instead of one side as in most plants. The result? The leaves are held perpendicular to the ground instead of parallel to minimize sun exposure and water loss. How cool is that?

Today, many coastal manzanitas are endangered or rare, due in part to development. Among the rarest species is the Franciscan manzanita, which had not been seen in the wild since 1947 but was discovered thriving amid the litter and car exhaust fumes during the Doyle Drive expansion just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. That plant was moved to an undisclosed location for further research and, one hopes, successful propagation.

Manzanitas are outstanding additions to any garden, whether for low groundcovers, uplit accent trees or hedges that provide nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies and native insects. A few to consider: Arctostaphylos uva ursi, ‘Emerald Carpet,’ or ‘Pacific Mist’ for low groundcovers, and ‘Dr. Hurd,’ ‘Austin Griffiths,’ ‘John Dourley’ and ‘Howard McMinn’ for taller specimens. Plant in well-draining soil in a sunny location, avoid fertilizer, and then sit back and enjoy a carefree plant with a long and proud history.

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