A Closer Look At The Manzanita Plant
● By Laura Christman
Story by Laura Christman
Photos by Taryn Burkleo
MANZANITA IS a plucky plant, happy to grow where soils are meager and summers miserable. The North State is thick with it. The ubiquitous woody evergreen takes varied forms: sprawling, brushy or treelike with dramatic branching and smooth — sometimes curled — mahogany-colored bark.
“There are 67 species of manzanita, 60 of which call California home,” says Michael Kauffmann, an author of “Field Guide to Manzanitas.”
The Redding area’s signature species is whiteleaf manzanita with grayish-green leaves and often growing in thickets. Greenleaf manzanita with deep-green foliage takes root slightly higher in the foothills. Ground-hugging pinemat manzanita is common in mountain areas like Lassen Volcanic National Park. One unique species, Mallory’s manzanita, only grows in Shasta County. Leathery leaves containing oils help manzanitas retain moisture in scorching places. They have additional tricks, too.
“To conserve water, many species keep their leaves at such an angle as to minimize direct sunlight,” Kauffmann says. Tiny hairs on leaves also offer sun protection for various manzanitas.
Manzanita is adapted to wildfire and is one of the first plants to reclaim scorched ground. Fire triggers germination of whiteleaf seeds that lie dormant in the ground for years. Greenleaf resprouts from root burl. But fire recovery is only part of the plant’s fiery reputation.
“When people see manzanita, they automatically assume it is designed to burn often and with high intensity. That’s a false assumption,” says Jennifer Gibson, chief of resource management and interpretation at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
The burn window is narrow, she says. Manzanita is at the highest fire risk when leaves lose critical moisture in the dry season, resulting in a higher ratio of oils. “When we get to July, August, September, October, that is a really dangerous time,” Gibson says.
Dead branches within a plant add to the fuel load. Cal Fire’s defensible space rules concerning native vegetation near homes are important to follow, Gibson says.
“Cut back, prune and thin,” she says of manzanita. But there’s no need to scrape property clear. Manzanita is an important plant for soil health, wildlife and the beauty of natural areas, and they are quite diverse.
Mallory’s manzanita looks like whiteleaf, but rubbing a leaf reveals the true identity. Mallory’s foliage is fuzzy. “The leaves feel like felt,” Gibson says.
It’s easy to take manzanita for granted, but Gibson says artists from beyond California participating in Whiskeytown’s Artist in Residency program “are completely intrigued with painting the manzanita. They are not used to it. They love the bark. They love the flowers.” Indigenous people valued manzanita berries for food and cider, and used the plant medicinally, according to a Natural Resources Conservation Service plant guide.
Manzanita blooms early — whiteleaf often in December. Clusters of tiny white or pink urn-shaped blooms draw bees and hummingbirds. “Manzanitas are important for every level of the food chain,” Kauffmann says. “Insects thrive on their leaves and stems, and these insects are food for numerous bird species, including chickadees and juncos. The fruits are eaten by species of every size, from mice to bears.”
“The name ‘manzanita’ means ‘little apple’ (in Spanish), and the fruits do look like little apples,” says Susan Libonati, vice president of Shasta chapter of California Native Plant Society and a retired college botany instructor.
Some plants have an association with manzanita, she says. Pedicularis densiflora (lousewort, warrior’s plume, Indian warrior) with flashy magenta spires taps into sugars from manzanita roots via a fungal bridge, she says.
Beneficial underground fungi and microbes associated with manzanita roots boost soil health. Manzanita has had an impressive role in healing Shasta County hillsides denuded by copper smelting in the early 1900s. Poisonous smoke from smoldering ore wiped out oaks, pines, shrubs and grasses along what is now Keswick Reservoir. Khaled J. Bloom’s book, “Murder of a Landscape: The California Farmer-Smelter War 1897-1916,” says state investigators in 1914 described almost all native vegetation gone, except for a bit of poison oak and manzanita. Manzanita slowly spread to reclaim the barren, eroding hills.
While manzanita bounces back from challenges in the wild, it can be challenging to grow in home landscapes, Libonati says. It’s a wonderful plant to feature, just be sure to seek out cultivars developed for home gardens, she advises.
“The ones sold in nurseries are adapted to garden conditions,” Libonati says. •