I’m always intrigued at the way different locations mutate plants into different shapes.
I, of course, am pleased to call them mutations, because I’m used to their other forms. So to me, the different forms are unusual. Intriguing. It’s like looking at a friend who just got plastic surgery or peacock blue hair.
In the high mountains (between 6,000 and 10,000 feet), many of these variations seem to make a plant lower to the ground, smaller.
Where there is snow eight or nine months out of the year, low to the ground is a smart choice for a spreading plant. If it doesn’t stay low, six or seven or up to twenty feet of snow load will put it there. Smaller size may also have something to do with short growing season and soil fertility. Rock is close to the surface in high mountains.
Where I live, manzanitas are tall, shrubby plants-the mature ones are well over my head–with twisty mahogany-colored branches. When the moon or headlights shine on them, their pale green leaves turn white.
I delight in this little pinemat manzanita (Arctostaphylos nevadensis), which is a miniature version of the type that grows where I live. In the mountains, it’s still a shrub, but it comes only to my ankles. To me, this shrubby groundcover looks like gorgeous landscaping. But it also serves some practical purposes.
Manzanitas are great soil-preservers, because they can grow and hold soil on slopes and in soils with very little nourishment. In my area, they cover sunny, dense clay hillsides. In the high mountains, they thrive on a diet of granite and crushed granite, where very few plants can survive.
Pinemat manzanita berries are somewhat smaller than the tall manzanitas that grow in my area, but they are large in proportion to Arctostaphylos nevadensis‘s tiny height. There weren’t too many berries evident this year, but they may have already disappeared down the gullets of the grouse, chipmunks, and squirrels and other wildlife who would find these berries at a handy height for eating.
But manzanita has even more to it than beauty and bounty. Manzanita is in the same family as heaths, heathers, and madrone. It’s also related to uva-ursi (bearberry or kinnickinnick), which is easy to see when you look at this creeping variety.
It’s so closely related to uva-ursi that it has almost the same chemical profile in its leaves. Both have arbutin, a natural antibiotic and diuretic. It can kill and wash away bacteria from the urinary tract. Uva-ursi is traditionally used for bladder and kidney problems, so you could use manzanita in the same way.
You’d need to be careful about the dose, though. Many people make the mistake of vaguely believing that plant drugs are safe because they’re “natural”. Digitalis and scopolamine are also natural, but how you take them means the difference between improving your life and meeting your death. It’s important to be respectful of plants and know what you’re doing.
If you take them in very large quantities, uva-ursi and manzanita can both cause collapse and death. The proper dosage is one teaspoon of leaves steeped in sixteen ounces of water, taken two or three times a day. This tea has a not-unpleasant astringent taste, a bit like the tannin in black tea (actually, manzanita has tannins in it, also). Don’t drink it if you’re pregnant, though; in some women, it can cause uterine contractions.
Historically, the Shoshone drank this tea as a remedy for venereal disease (one of the gifts of Europe to the Americas). If you look at the chemical constituency, it seems like a good thing to try. Chances are it was a lot more effective than whatever European remedy was being offered at the time (mercury, a toxin, was used on its own earlier on; it’s still included in many drugs).
Arbutin has been synthesized as a drug. You may be surprised to learn that taking manzanita or uva ursi tea is actually more effective than taking the drug. Arbutin breaks down so quickly in the body that it often destablilizes before doing its work. Uva ursi has substances in its leaves which preserve the arbutin on its travels through your body. It also has other ingredients which may work synergistically with the others, including quercetin, which is good for your respiratory system, and allantoin, the famous nerve- and tissue-healing ingredient in comfrey.
Over the years, I’ve learned over and over about herbs whose effects were better than their so-called active ingredient. We have a lot to learn about plant chemistry. When drugs are isolated from plants, they often cause side effects that are not present when the whole plant is taken. Or, like manzanita and uva-ursi, the constituents of the plant work as a team to make its action more effective.
Coincidence? I think not.
Next post: more uses for yet another kind of manzanita.
Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, 1963. (They have recently come out with a more recent version, but this is the one I own and still use.)
Kimball Chatfield, Medicine from the Mountains: Medicinal Plants of the Sierra Nevada, Range of Light Publications, 1997
LoLo Westrich, California Herbal Remedies, Gulf Publishing Company, 1989