One of the greatest joys as a designer of native gardens in California is working with Arctostaphylos, a.k.a., Manzanita. I can trace my interest in these plants all the way back to my early childhood. One of my favorite pastimes at this early stage of life was taking roadtrips with my grandpa to the backcountry of San Diego County. We would drive up Old Highway 80 to a roadside spring known as Ellis Wayside rest stop where we would eat lunch at a picnic table under the Oak trees.
I was fascinated with the history of that meandering old concrete highway and the circuitous path it wound through giant boulders jutting out of the chaparral. Manzanita covered the hillsides and I remember being intrigued by their smooth red bark and how green the country side was year-round.
Today, estimates vary with regard to how many species of manzanita exist throughout California’s Floristic Province; from forty into the hundreds if you include cultivars, subspecies and hybrids.
Arctostaphylos is a diverse group with varieties occurring in Mediterranean areas with predominately clay soils, sandy beaches, and colder mountainous regions made up of rocky acidic soil. Manzanitas are typically located in regions where the heat and dryness of summer are offset by cool air in the evening coupled with higher rainfall totals in winter. This is especially true of most of the cultivar and hybrid species grown for landscape purposes in California.
Utilizing cultivars and hybrids in native gardens is a common-sense approach with regard to availability as well as a way to honor the people who have championed the use and preservation of California’s native flora.
A perfect example is Arctostaphylos densiflora 'Howard McMinn'. This plant was a selection introduced by the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation in 1955. The original plants were provided to them by Howard McMinn, who discovered and collected seed from a stand of Vine Hill manzanita near Sebastopol, Ca. It is fitting that this outstanding selection was named for him reflected by the Award of Merit from the California Horticultural Society in 1956. Howard McMinn Manzanita is also a nectar source for the Monarch Butterfly and a great addition to the butterfly garden.
Arctostaphylos 'Lester Rowntree' is another hybrid with a rich history; its parentage A. pajaroensis manzanita introduced by Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and named for early native plant pioneer in the study of California native plants Lester Rowntree. Rowntree was known for drawing heavily upon her extensive fieldwork and writings regarding our native flora's natural history and how these plants would behave in domestic gardens.
Another excellent choice for the home landscape is Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds’. Like the aforementioned, Louis Edmunds is an upright variety that can adapt to many climates making it an excellent choice for a screen or as a focal point. The open habit of this manzanita shows off its beautiful chocolate branching habit, which contrasts well with glaucus leaves. Clusters of pale pink urn-shaped flowers bloom in late winter or early spring offering hummingbirds a good nectar source when few other natives are in bloom.
Louis Edmunds Manzanita is a horticultural selection of Arctostaphylos bakeri from the northern coast discovered by plantsman Louis Edmunds and introduced by Saratoga Horticultural foundation in 1962. This hearty selection works well in sun to part shade and can tolerate more water than most manzanitas.
I certainly would be remiss in neglecting to mention Arctostaphylos 'John Dourley'. A personal favorite of mine, this hybrid is a dependable ground cover with a mounding habit 2’ tall by 6’ wide. New growth foliage has appealing red tint fading to gray-green during summer months. The clusters of pink flowers are abundant over a long bloom season followed by purple-red fruit. A. ‘John Dourley’ was named for John Dourley (horticulture director at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden during the 1970’s) by native plant champion Mike Evans of Tree of Life Nursery fame.
Manzanita has a rich history in California. Beyond the aforementioned historic figures outlined above, California’s Native Americans utilized the decorative berries and leaves for beverages such as tea, extracts for headaches and lotion for relief from poison oak.
Today as forward thinking landscape professionals and homeowners, we can use manzanitas to replace imported plants like Rhaphiolepis (Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn'), Privet (Arctostaphylos 'Mama Bear'), Escallonia, (Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn' or 'Sentinel' ), and Abelia (Arctostaphylos 'Sonoma').
From child to adult, Manzanita has continued to hold a special place in my heart. I have always been and will continue to be grateful for Mother Nature’s gift to California, the manzanita!