The Apple of Our Eye

by | May 1, 2007 | Native Plants

WALKING OR HIKING WITHIN THE NATURAL world allows you to see what living things are rooted there. Among the plants rooted in California are those in the genus Arctostaphylos of the Ericaceae (or Heath) family.

This genus is made up of evergreen shrubs commonly known by the Spanish folk name manzanita (little apple) for their small, round, nutritious fruit beloved by bears, coyotes, foxes and other animals, including humans. California’s Native Americans made a refreshing seasonal cider from the berries, and manzanita jelly is still enjoyed.

California is manzanita central. The vast majority of manzanita species are indigenous to California, but some species are found in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Central America as far south as Guatemala. With the exception of low-desert dwellers, Western gardeners have several gardenworthy plants to choose from, many of which occur in the wild.

However, if you aren’t a Western gardener and the wide-ranging evergreen groundcover Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is all that your cold-climate garden will allow, manzanita is a plant to bring such pleasure to the mind and senses that you may want to visit them on vacation. According to Bart O’Brien, senior staff research associate at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California, many manzanita species are so well adapted to specific bio-geographic spots that they cluster together in manzanita barrens.

In the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs, California, for example, manzanita barrens dominate several hiking trails. At this 5,000-feet-plus elevation, A. glandulosa, A. pungens and A. pringlei ssp. drupacea are stunning year-round, made so in part by their twisting structure. Their smooth, mahogany-cinnamon bark brings life to the muted grays, greens and coffees of boulder-strewn canyon forests. Even their silvery skeletons shine.

Arctostaphylos glandulosa is one of the burl-forming California species. The burls are complex and interesting to look at and serve a practical purpose. After a fire, they are not completely destroyed; instead, new shoots will emerge from charred, woody basal burls, according to O’Brien.

Some manzanita species bloom in winter, others in spring. O’Brien, coauthor of “California Native Plants for the Garden,” says many species are identified by the shape, number of branches, nature of the bud scales and position of the nascent inflorescence. Of their blooms, he says, “People who take the time to closely observe these blossoms are richly rewarded by their intense honey-like fragrance and their nodding bunches of thick, waxy, white to pink urn-shaped flowers.”

Manzanita leaves are thick and leathery in many tones of bright green through bluish-gray and gray-green. New stems and foliage often appear in bronzes and reds.

However, it’s that twisting, cinnamonkissed red bark on architecturally fascinating shapes that so appeals. Red is, after all, the essential signaling color in the natural world, according to science writer Natalie Angier. Not all manzanitas have this distinctive bark, though; some are shaggy and gray.

When it comes to those twisting shapes, there is a complicated story behind the elegant roundish turns and angular shoots. Those nodding flower clusters terminate the growth of a branch, says O’Brien. (This is unusual because in most other plants flowers don’t function as stop signs.) Five or six buds may break below the inflorescence, and that greatest of all architects, nature, produces an infinitely interesting structure.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is not only widespread but circumboreal, or found around the world at locations at northern latitudes including Alaska, Colorado, Canada, Eastern Russia and Siberia. A subspecies, A. uva-ursi ssp. cratericola, has even been found at the summits of two Guatemalan volcanoes.

In California, A. uva-ursi ranges from the Big Sur area in Monterey County to Del Norte County, according to O’Brien. The species is known by the common name, bearberry, and by another folk name, kinnikinnick.

Bearberry was named and described by Linnaeus in 1753, but as Arbutus uva-ursi. A decade later, French botanist Michel Adanson realized the plant deserved its own genus and chose Arctostaphylos, which means essentially “bearberry,” but in Greek. Thus, A. uva-ursi translates as Bearberry bearberry.

Arctostaphylos turned out to be a more complicated genus than an 18th-century European botanist could have imagined. The genus Arctostaphylos is probably the most complicated group of woody plants in North America. In the early 19th century, European botanical explorers in California began a taxonomic ruckus within this remarkable genus, where plants range from a few inches in height to 25 feet.

The crux of the taxonomic debate is that morphology traditionally has been used for classification, but new DNA sequencing suggests morphology is not reliable, according to Steve Edwards, director of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley, California. While it is difficult for some beginners to distinguish closely related manzanitas, many species are very distinctive in appearance and can be learned by gestalt or by range, according to Edwards. With manzanita, interbreeding in the wild is “famously frequent,” he says. “However, interbreeding rarely occurs to the extent that a hybrid swarm results. Usually there are sporadic hybrids if two species grow near each other, but the parental species remain intact.”

The number of species found in Arctostaphylos depends on the taxonomist you ask. In the estimation of O’Brien, there are 90 Arctostaphylos taxa and 140 named cultivars.

Manzanitas aren’t long-lived plants; the average life span of a shrub is 25 to 50 years, but some individuals can live for up to a century. Most species are chaparral plants, and all desire full sun. You often will see only a strip of living red tissue on mostly dead, gray branches with foliage at the tips.

Different species have characteristics that are essential to their survival. Their leaves, for example, help them adapt to heat and drought, according to O’Brien.

Manzanita may possess inventive survival instincts, but they aren’t equipped to withstand habitat destruction by humans, a particular problem given the plants’ narrow distributions.

A number of Arctostaphylos species in California are threatened or endangered in the wild. Regeneration of most California species is fire-dependent; fire suppression on public lands can cause a sharp decline in populations in the wild. That’s partially the fate of an endangered species, the Santa Cruz manzanita (A. andersonii), which is endemic to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A remarkable story of manzanita conservation involves the vine hill manzanita (A. densiflora) in Sonoma County. In 1932, only about 100 of these manzanita existed in the wild. In the following years, these survivors and their progeny were assaulted by agriculture, bulldozers and crankcase oil applied to control the “weeds.” After the passionate exhortations in 1972 of botanist and preservationist James Roof, the property on which this brave little manzanita band was making its last stand was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, then deeded to the California Native Plant Society.

Conservationists continue to advocate on behalf of different manzanita species. Among them is Geoff Coffey, a landscape designer, writer and cofounder of Native Spaces, an organization that promotes the use of California native plants in the urban landscape.

Coffey is trying to call attention to two species, the presence of which has been diminished to single specimens in an area in the southwestern corner of San Francisco near Lake Merced known as Brotherhood Way.

Once abundant in this area, Coffey says the rosei manzanita (A. tomentosa ssp. rosei) and Lake Merced brittleleaf manzanita (A. tomentosa ssp. crustacea) are “the last of their kind in the city.” Botanists disagree over whether this species is the same species found in the coastal Santa Lucia mountains, in which case the species is merely uncommon, or if the Lake Merced form is genetically distinct and thus a rare, endemic and highly endangered species.

Of the specimen of A. tomentosa ssp. crustacea, Coffey says, “It is taking its last gasp and suffering beneath the shade of abundant eucalyptus at the site.” Very simple steps could be taken to safeguard these urban survivors, says Coffey, who through Native Spaces is trying to gain support to do that and make the plants available for public viewing.

“Many people value the diversity of the native plant species still growing wild in the natural areas of San Francisco, and they might be surprised to learn that anybody would allow such treasures as the Brotherhood Way manzanitas to die off simply for lack of care and attention,” according to Coffey. “The missing piece of the puzzle, as usual, is education.”

Paula Panich, a journalist and writing instructor, has been writing about plants, gardens and other nonfiction subjects for two decades. She is the author, most recently, of “Cultivating Words: The Guide to Writing About the Plants and Gardens You Love.”