By Paula Urtecho
We are squarely in winter, with cold, drizzly days that make us want to stay indoors. We tend to think of this season as a time to hunker down and go dormant, as many plants do. And yet, in the midst of winter, there is a group of native plants that defy the season and rather than becoming bare and unremarkable, they light up the cold, dark days with profusions of blooms. Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.) are flowering as I write this article and they are waiting for you to get outside and witness their clusters of fragrant, urn-shaped blooms in habitats all over California.
California is the center of biodiversity for manzanitas, with 95 recognized species and subspecies within our state limits. These woody evergreen shrubs are truly iconic California species and can be found from coastal bluffs to high alpine environments. These plants range in form from low groundcovers to small trees of up to ~12 feet tall. In all forms, they are known by their robust, upright leaves in varying shades of green and dramatically sinuous, smooth or sometimes peeling, red branches/trunks. The contrast of the foliage against the red bark is really quite striking and makes manzanitas a favorite among native plant enthusiasts. Many manzanitas have extremely localized distributions and may be endemic to a very particular soil type or geological formation. Because the soil at a location may be so nutrient poor, manzanitas may be the only vegetation adapted to growing there, forming what are known as “manzanita barrens.”
Unlike most plants which produce flowers in spring and early summer, manzanitas begin flowering as early as October (e.g. A. refugioensis), but most species bloom primarily in the winter months and through spring. This unusual blooming period is a boon to pollinators because they provide a generous source of nectar and pollen for hummingbirds and bees when few other sources are available. Bees, both native and honeybees, are the primary pollinators of these plants. You might be wondering how big, fuzzy bumble bees avail themselves of pollen from these downward-hanging flowers with very small openings. In a fascinating show of symbiosis and adaptation, bumble bees employ a sonic technique called “buzz pollination” where, while hanging upside down on a manzanita flower, they vibrate their flight muscles to a pitch of middle C, causing the pollen grains to be released from the anthers and onto the bee’s fuzzy abdomen. As the bumble bee moves from flower to flower, it fertilizes the stigmas with the pollen clinging to its belly – brilliant!
With regard to the name “manzanita”, anyone who speaks or understands Spanish can tell you that the name means “little apple”. The name came about because the fruit is somewhat reminiscent of an apple in color and shape. Manzanita fruits are edible and many native people eat the ripe fruit raw or make a refreshing cider by soaking the berries in cold water. Manzanita fruits are also an important food source for many wildlife species, including bears, coyotes, foxes, racoons, woodrats, squirrels and quail, to name but a few.
Get outside and find some manzanitas – there are plenty of places nearby to see them. Take a hike out at Sobrante Ridge Regional Park or Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve to admire the Alameda Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pallida). At Mt. Diablo State Park, keep an eye out for the distinctive gray leaves of Mount Diablo Manzanita (Arctostaphylos auriculata) or the large-statured Contra Costa Manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita subsp. laevigata). You’ll find manzanitas in many, many other locations throughout the bay area.
Anderson, M. Kat Tending the Wild, University of California Press, 2005
Borenstein, C., Fross, D., O’Brien, B. California Native Plants for the Garden, Cachuma Press, 2005
Kauffman, M., Parker, T., Vasey, M. Field Guide to Manzanitas, Backcountry Press, 2015