Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Manzanitas in the naturalistic landscape

In far Northern California where my parents-in-law live, manzanitas (genus Arctostaphylos) are among the most widespread native shrubs. According to Wikipedia, manzanitas (approximately 60 different species) are found from British Columbia, Canada all the way down to northern and central Mexico. There are ground-hugging species barely a foot tall to small trees 6 ft. or more in height. All except one species are evergreen, and they share small urn-shaped flowers in shades or white and pink, and fruit that look like tiny apples (“manzanita” means “small apple” in Spanish).

Greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula) flower
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula) fruit
Photo source: © 2009 Keir Morse, Encyclopedia of Life

The dominant manzanita species in Mount Shasta is greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula). It is native to the coniferous forests of the Western U.S. and grows at moderate to high elevations (the town of Mount Shasta is at 3,600 ft.).

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Greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula) with Mount Shasta (14,179 ft.) in the background

Its typical form is a shrub with multiple branches, up to 6 ft. in height, but properly pruned it can be trained into a single-trunked tree.

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Arctostaphylos patula in naturalistic landscape

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Beautiful specimen of Arctostaphylos patula

As its common name suggests, its leaves are a rich apple-green, appearing yellow when backlit.

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Arctostaphylos patula leaves, backlit by the winter sun

The most striking feature of any manzanita is its reddish bark, typically smooth but sometimes peeling in a fashion reminiscent of the madrones, especially the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) endemic to the coastal ranges from British Columbia down to Central California.

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The contorted branches with their rich coloration are eye-catching visual elements that make manzanita a standout in the landscape.

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Living and dead wood is frequently found on the same shrub. While this can make the plant look messy (as in the next photo), it can also be an advantage if you do some judicious pruning in order to create a natural sculpture.

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Even dead, manzanitas still look good. I would love to have the twisted stump in the next photo in our garden. It would look great placed in front of a clump of bamboo, or surrounded by potted succulents.

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Manzanitas grow best in full sun or light shade. They prefer slightly acidic, fast-draining soil that isn’t particularly rich. They are very drought-tolerant once established; in fact, they prefer to be dry in the summer and should be planted away from sprinklers.

In addition to the naturally occurring species, a number of hybrids and cultivars have been developed specifically for landscaping use. Here is an extensive list, subdivided into manzanitas for Northern, Central and Southern California.

For example, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ is one the 100 All-Stars selected by the UC Davis Arboretum for their toughness and reliability in our climate. It is sold in many nurseries in the Sacramento area and at UC Davis Arboretum plant sales.

A word of caution: Manzanita wood is highly flammable and manzanitas are considered a fire hazard in some areas. Do not plant them in the immediate vicinity of any structures. However, if you have a larger property and prefer landscaping with native plants, a well-sited grouping of manzanitas will be an eye catcher.

4 comments:

  1. Great pictures and article about a favorite plant of mine. I just wonder why it took me so long to discover them! Now that I have I've got three in my garden...I noticed none of these pictures seemed to be from your garden...does that mean you aren't growing any?

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  2. Meant to tell you that not much of anything grows under a manzanita, except more manzanitas! It has a natural weed killer to keep the competition down!

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  3. Beautiful wood and bark. And leaves. And fruit. Wonder if there are any species that will grow here?

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  4. Loree, the photos were taken in my in-laws' neighborhood in Mount Shasta, CA. I don't have any manzanitas in our garden, there just isn't enough room (although there are some dwarf cultivars like Manzanita glauca 'Wayne's Dwarf' that merit a closer look). I enjoyed looking at yours on your blog, BTW.

    Alan, all manzanitas are fairly hardy, considering they grow in the mountains. Arctostaphylos parryana is particularly hardy, down to -30°F. That one would definitely withstand your winters. Here are some photos and more info.

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