Identification: Often a shrub, but not uncommonly a small tree. Manzanita’s most distinctive feature is its smooth, hard, red bark, which sometimes peels off in small flakes. Leaves are small (~1.5”), simple, sturdy, and untoothed; flowers are white or pinkish little bells in winter and early spring; fruits are red berries. Madrone also has smooth reddish bark, but it is a different, lighter color, while madrone’s overall form is much more vertical and treeish and the leaves are much bigger (~8”).
Where: Shrubby manzanita species are common in hot, dry chaparral communities (we have a little local chaparral on Mt. Burdell and Big Rock Ridge), while some of the more tree-ish varieties can be found in dry-ish oak woodland in the company of live oaks, black oaks, madrone, toyon, and the like (Olompali; Indian Valley). One of the more common tree-sized species in woodland from Marin County northwards is Arctostaphylos manzanita, common manzanita. A variety of other manzanita species, many of them often shrubbish, are found throughout the Bay Area, and are often difficult to identify to species. Manzanitas are also planted ornamentally for their low water needs, handsome bark, and delicate looking flowers.
or Hardness & Delicacy, Scarcity & Fruitfulness
Manzanita is one of the most characteristic shrubs of California, and when it reaches tree size one of our more striking. Paul Landacre’s woodcut from Donald Culross Peattie’s classic A Natural History of Western Trees captures their essence well:
What Landacre is illustrating here is jagged, asymetric, and slow upwards endeavor, all the while clinging tenaciously to the rocky soils that welcome few larger trees. Peattie describes the appearance of their branches as “arthritic,” a word that can seem appropriate to their disjointed, zigzagging limbs, hardened into an interlocking tangle of bending brittle bars. The older the tree, the more intense this impression: unrelenting death seems to steadily importune every manzanita that claws its way through life to maturity, slowing but rarely stopping them till many years have passed, with segments of their smooth, red-carved limbs often overtaken by gray dead wood while living branches continue to support their evergreen canopy. Bent but not bowed, struggling but indomitable, there is in Landacre’s illustration a kind of Sisyphean triumph to this skyward seeker for whom every upward convulsion seems a labor and an act of will. If you are a redwood or an alder, you shoot upwards. If you are a manzanita like this one, you claw yourself inch by inch out of the rock to claim a relative eminence among the stunted citizens of the chaparral.
But let’s start with the basics.
Manzanita is easily recognized above all by its bark: hard, red, smooth, cool. In some species, it may be peeling in small papery flakes, while in others it is a more or less smooth and unbroken surface with a dark and polished lustre. The relative uniqueness of this bark leads some beginners to confuse it with madrone, our one other tree that has a somewhat similar surface. Remember these key differences, obvious once learned: madrone is dependably treeish and never shrubby, mature madrones will have thicker brown and scaly bark on trunks and large limbs, and madrone has much larger leaves–typically some 6-8” compared to the 1-2” long leaves of the heat-adapted manzanita. In either tree, this smooth bark seems to have an innate attraction to humans and naturally invites the passerby’s touch. Cooled by the water being slowly drawn up close beneath the surface, the touch of one of these trees seems like something abstracted from the heat of the world, indifferent to discomfort.
The bark of the manzanita, lovely as it is, is far from the whole of this tree’s charms. Forming a pleasing contrast to the rich red hues are the small, plain leaves, which likewise seem to me to convey a certain quiet patience. Unlike the large deciduous leaves of say a valley oak or maple, which unfurl their thin and spreading banners in spring to soak up as much sunlight as they can in the eight months or so before the sun sinks and the rewards lessen, manzanita leaves are small, tough, and evergreen. Made for longer use and high water retention, they are typically small in size (perhaps an inch-and-a-half is a typical length), thick and leathery (for multi-year durability), and often coated with a waxy coating (to help retain water in hot, dry environments). In shady forest species, they may grow a little larger, lose a little of their waxiness, and develop a lovely cool green color. But the typical leaf of even our more tree-ish woodland species in the Bay Area bears the distinct marks of manzanita’s origin in the hot chaparral: small, thick, and held relatively vertically to avoid the most intense of the sun’s rays.
Manzanitas are a California specialty adapted from the beginning to our Mediterranean climate with its hot, dry summers, and wet, mild winters. As a general rule, chaparral plants have to be highly attuned to this pattern because they are found in soils and topographical conditions where there is little summer water, and really not much water retention at all: unlike under the textbook seasons of Eastern North America or Northern Europe, many of our plants have more to fear from summer heat and drought than winter cold. It is true that we still have many winter deciduous plants and that even evergreen leaves slow down their rate of photosynthesis in the winter, but we shouldn’t let that broadly true trend cover up the realities of Californian seasons. Most notably, spring starts early, and few plants demonstrate this better than manzanitas, many species of which start flowering in December or January.
The way that manzanitas execute this early-start strategy is to do the preparatory work growing “nascent inflorescences” towards the end of their spring growth and then let these buds hibernate through the rest of the summer and fall. Then, when the first hints of spring’s wet rebirth rain down towards the end of our calendar year, they are ready to let loose their lovely cool winter ornaments, tiny white or pink-tinged flowers in the shape of little bells perhaps ¼” in length. A favorite food source of hummingbirds and bees during these winter months when relatively few nectar sources are available, the flowers have a very narrow, downward pointing opening which protects the pollen from winter rain and attempts to favor the appropriate species for pollination. Various insects will circumvent this intention, however, by piercing holes in the base of the flower to remove nectar while avoiding any usefulness in spreading pollen.
In one sense, these small leaves and smaller flowers are fruits of manzanita’s evolutionary roots scraping by in the hard chaparral: Landacre is right to emphasize their bony structure which is accentuated by the smallness of their foliage. But one shouldn’t let all that talk of hardness and arthritic limbs distract from the real loveliness of manzanita flowers. They are small, certainly, but with the cool, self-contained elegance of pearls. The chaparral isn’t a giant-flowered rainforest, but it’s not a graveyard either. Flowers are messages and offerings from plants to animals, the most beautiful manifestation of millennia of endlessly reciprocating life: nourishment for pollination.
And nourishment again for seed dispersal. These little bells give way in spring to the manzanitas themselves, the small red berries resembling little apples that give the plant its name. Native Americans regularly ate the berries, and Spanish settlers and pioneers made jelly or cider with it, but they are generally considered to be rather mealy and unappetizing for direct human consumption. Before Spanish colonizers named our plant for its visual similarity to the apples they knew, botanists had named the Eurasian species bear-berry, or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: bear-grape (Greek) bear-grape (Latin). Whatever the berries’ limitations as human food, animals unquestionably find them nourishing, a fact that is as true here as it was in the old country, with the berries easily recruiting bears, coyotes, raccoons, and birds to the task of dispersing the hard seeds found in each fruit. (Technically, botanists will term such a hard-centered fruit a drupe rather than a berry; it is more a small peach or plum than official berry, or apple for that matter. Depending on the species, the multiple seeds in each fruit are fused together to a varying degree, but often act functionally as a single stone.)
Manzanitas, as I’ve noted, were originally specialists in hard living. And many of their ~60 species (no genus of woody plants in North America is more diverse) grow in various isolated and inhospitable chaparral communities around the state, where heat, drought, poor soil, and periodic fire are the norms. But some manzanitas do grow in more amenable conditions. Sometimes in cooler coastal woods in Sonoma or Mendocino or in somewhat elevated Lake County forests they will find themselves recipients of a filtered understory light rather than a harsh and beating sun. Then their leaves can expand, moderately, and their forms become less tortured, to make beautiful even shrubs with lovely contrasts between their minty green leaves, the smooth red of their thin bark, and the delicate white or rose of their small bellflowers.
But in the Bay Area proper, among the more tree-like species, Landacre’s illustration is more often than not fairly apropos. To grow to tree dimensions, they need somewhat better than average soil and some motivation for verticality, as found in the openings and edges of our mixed oak woodlands (unlike the blistering chaparral where standing high above the dwarfish masses only exposes you to excessive sunlight). Sometimes they grow to tree height in small, more or less continuous patches of manzanita that are intermediate between oak woodland and chaparral in soil condition, topographical water retention, sun exposure or some such other limiting quality. And it is in such conditions, when manzanitas emerge from the impenetrable chaparral into the more welcoming woodlands, that we are best able to appreciate both their origins in privation and scarcity and their richly heralded arrival in their present state of beauty and fruitfulness.
In history, the great moment is, when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage, with all his hairy Pelasgic strength directed on his opening sense of beauty: — and you have Pericles and Phidias, — not yet passed over into the Corinthian civility. Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition. (Emerson, “Power”)
Name: Manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita. Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish. The genus name Arctostaphylos means something like “bear’s grape” in Greek, as the specific epithet of the original type species A. uva-ursi means “bear’s grape” in Latin (that species, also found in California as a low shrub, is commonly known as bear-berry).