Manzanita: Small, medium or large?
No other shrub is more symbolic of the Pacific Coast than manzanita (Arctostaphylos). From British Columbia to Baja, many species are endemic from the beaches to the mountains. Comprising more than 50 species and dozens of cultivars, they are one of the most distinctive shrubs of the far West, familiar to campers and hikers but little known to the home gardener beyond the widely used groundcover Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylus uva-ursi).
In California, manzanitas have long been recognized as valuable garden shrubs and have gained a staunch following among native plant enthusiasts. They are another component in the movement toward low maintenance and low water gardens.
The wild manzanita flower was once a food staple of Native American tribes in what is now Southern California. It was widely used in a smoking mixture used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Though the recipe varied from tribe to tribe, the mixture in general became known by indigenous peoples as kinnikinnick, a name that stuck among colonial European hunters, traders, and settlers. In many areas berries from wild manzanita flowers are used today for tasty jellies and jams.
The fruits that develop in the summer and into the fall are first green, with a smooth surface. The surface of some fruits are sticky. As the fruits mature in late summer, they turn a dark red or maroon color and the flesh becomes mealy or powdery.
Kinnikinnick, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, refers to ground cover versions of manzanita. ‘San Bruno Mountain’ will cover about 10 feet of ground while maintaining a height of about 6 inches. It has small, stiff, dark green leaves that go red or purplish in winter. Clusters of white or pinkish flowers come on in late winter, followed by red berries.
While kinnikinnick has good reason for its extreme popularity, manzanitas range from ground covers to tall shrubby varieties. All have bell-shaped flowers and small red fruit. In Spanish manzanita means “little apple” which is what the berry of this native plant resembles.
In the small-to-medium range is Arctostaphylos nummularia, AKA Fort Bragg manzanita, a small dense shrub about 2 feet tall. It grows well in coastal areas that get a lot of fog, does well in acid soils with a little water in summer and likes full sun or partial shade.
This evergreen shrub is valuable in small city gardens and makes a striking container specimen. It is endemic to California, where it grows in the forests of the coastal and inland ranges north of the San Francisco Bay. A. nummularia sports small, bright green leaves on hairy, slender stems. Small clusters of white flowers are borne from late winter to early spring. This plant is well suited to banks.
Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds’ is an erect shrub growing to around 6 feet tall with ornate, urn-shaped pink flowers in abundant clusters in early spring. The twisted, purplish-brown trunk and evergreen, gray-green leaves make it a striking specimen among mixed plantings. Deer don’t like it but its flowers are a big attraction for hummingbirds and its berries a useful foodstuff for other birds.
This plant has shown exceptional heat and drought tolerance and is one of the easiest manzanitas to grow. It’s a sun lover that likes well-drained soil and, once established, needs occasional to no supplemental watering.