Manzanita is a tough but pretty evergreen shrub or small tree common to the arid regions of the United States. Its popularity as a garden plant is growing as gardeners seek native plants that can withstand drought. In early summer, small red fruit, like tiny apples, covers Manzanita. Manzanita is a Spanish name which roughly translated means "little apples."
Manzanita, Arctostaphylos, is actually a group of some 60 species of plants; some of the rarest plants in the United States are included in this group. They range from prostate ground-hugging shrubs to small trees of 20 feet or so. They are closely related to Bears Berries or Kinnikinnick, which grows in more northerly but dry areas. The species can be crossed for interesting hybrids.
Manzanita is excellent as a ground cover in place of lawns in dry areas, and taller manzanita trees and shrubs can be used as hedges or interesting specimen plants. While not for every area of the country, it is very useful and pretty where many other plant species would struggle.
Manzanita leaves are small and thick, glossy green to gray-green and oval shaped. They are evergreen. The bark on young twigs and flower stalks is red to purple. Older Manzanita branches are reddish brown and often gnarled and twisted in interesting shapes. In the tree forms, the trunks are an interesting orange-brown, some with smooth bark and others with peeling bark. Manzanita tends to be broad and sprawling in shape.
Manzanita wood bleaches in sunlight to pale gray or white and is used ornamentally like driftwood, which it resembles. Perches for cage birds and aquarium decor are often made with the branches. The wood is not good for lumber but makes good firewood.
Manzanita blooms during late winter and early spring. The small white blooms are clustered at branch tips and are shaped like tiny bottles dangling upside down. The flowers have a pink or red edge at the open end. Some species also have pink flowers. The flowers attract bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. Each Manzanita flower develops into a small, bright-red fruit resembling a little apple with five hard seeds inside. The fruit was much appreciated by Native American tribes who used it in a number of ways and celebrated the ripening of the fruits. The taste of the fruit is very bland compared to real apples however.
Manzanita is very hard to start from seed; many varieties need the seeds to be exposed to fire before they will germinate. It will start from cuttings and by layering. Gardeners will generally start with small potted plants. Make sure you buy your plants from a reputable nursery as many Manzanita plants are endangered. In most places it is legal to buy nursery-propagated Manzanita plants of several species but illegal to go out and collect your plants.
Manzanita is hardy to Zones 6 or 7, depending on variety. They need dry summers with low humidity and are hard to establish in most eastern areas of the country. They prefer a loose, sandy, gravelly soil that is well drained and slightly on the acidic side. Full sun is needed for most species. In cultivation, they do appreciate watering once a month, but not from overhead. An acidic fertilizer in the spring is also appreciated.
Manzanitas are slow growers and resent transplanting. A stone or gravel mulch will keep weeds from growing up around them. Manzanita branches often root where they touch the ground and slowly form clumps of plants.
If you want to try manzanita in the southeast, a raised bed of sandy but fertile, well-drained soil under something that deflects natural rain but that allows lots of light might work in Zone 7 or below.
Collectors of unusual plants may also want to plant smaller manzanita varieties in pots that will be under a roofed patio for the summer but brought inside to a cool, bright place for winter.
One of the best-cultivated manzanitas is Howard McMinn. It forms a broad mound of thick branches, 5 to 7 feet high and 10 feet wide. The leaves are small and glossy green and it is loaded with small white flowers in late winter, each with a pinkish stem. It is excellent as a small hedge.
Emerald Carpet is a hybrid manzanita that is excellent as a lawn substitute, although it doesn't tolerate foot traffic. It will even tolerate light shade. It has small, glossy-green leaves and pink flowers on a plant only about 18 inches high by 3 feet wide.
John Dourley is a manzanita that is two to three feet tall with gray-green leaves lightly touched with red in spring and light pink flowers.
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