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Ghost Manzanita (Manzanita viscida)

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Manzanita may be common; it may be shrubby; it may even be a fire hazard. But it’s beautifully useful all year long, and throughout its hardy, persistent life. I’ve written here about other, high-mountain manzanitas; everything I wrote there about uses of the leaves and berries applies to our local foothills white-leaf or ghost manzanita, perhaps even more, since our manzanita is a bigger shrub. (While you’re looking, don’t forget to check out Steve’s useful comment on cultivating manzanitas below the “berries” link).
Since it’s native to our clay-and-granite, no-summer-water climate, it’s obvious that manzanita is one tough customer. They’re called “ghost manzanitas” because of one of three water-saving tactics of the foliage: the tough, leathery leaves keep evaporation to a minimum, and their vertical posture, with the thin edge toward the sun, reduces it even more. The light-grey-green color reflects sunlight that would steal moisture by transpiration. (Other manzanitas have brilliant green leaves.) Ghost manzanita leaves caught in the headlights, or by a full moon, shine like silvery phosphorescence.

My first introduction to manzanita was as the firewood that burns even when it’s wet. Since I’d ignorantly been trying to burn wet punky pine and other non-starters to keep warm, this was a revelation. Manzanita not only burns wet, it burns so hot it can warp your stove and make the wall behind it smolder. In a campfire, violet and electric blue streak up in the flames along with the more ordinary yellows and oranges.

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Manzanita is colorful even when you don’t burn it. Some get big enough to look very like their sisters, the madrones.The bark is a smooth deep mahogany purple-red, and plum-violet and rosy-rust streaks can be found inside most splits of firewood. (I knew a man who carved them into beautiful spoons.) It’s not always easy to find manzanita big enough to split; it’s a shrubby tree, whose trunks often split up and get no bigger around than my arm at the very very bottom.

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This photo also shows another characteristic of manzanitas: living and dead wood cohabit. Manzanitas are what I call death-and-resurrection trees. You can find dead and live wood on the same branch, and you can find many dead branches on a healthy living manzanita. Live branches and saplings are tough, long,  and flexible; I used them to build a wickiup when I first came here, and it seems likely to me that the Maidu might have used them for their own dome-like structures, built partly underground for insulation.

Our large masses of manzanitas  were a major food crop for the local Indians, and they must have been an important one, since the tasty acidic dry berries ripen starting in late spring and stay on the bushes well into the beginning of winter. My friend who’s learning Maidu says that she thinks the name for manzanita is “epuh”; the Maidu word for apple is “eppoli”, and this is a diminuitive. (She’s not absolutely sure about this; I’ll confirm it in a comment on this post when I check with her teacher in a few weeks.) It’s the same in Spanish; “manzanita” means “little apple”. All you have to do is take a look at the fruit to know why.

Manzanita berries are still a major food crop for bears and coyotes, who exhibit the evidence in their scat. If you want to experiment with manzanita berries, and don’t have acres of manzanitas out your back door, Steve (his comment is on the bottom of the page this link takes you to) says that watering them will give you bigger crops of berries.

Since we have huge tangled colonies of manzanita here, it’s hard work to clear out the dead parts; manzanita branches start within a few inches of the ground. You have to crawl on your belly with branches snaring your hair, clothes, and tender body parts to get through manzanita settlements, and sometimes it’s impenetrable no matter which way you turn through the maze.

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Eventually, the whole thing dies, and you get brushpiles like this, which are a considerable fire hazard. I once made a privacy fence by crudely interweaving these dead branches; it was a great rustic climbing fence for vines, and easy to take down when it was time to move. Dead manzanita branches are also prime kindling, but since we have so much of manzanita everywhere, they are often bulldozed up and disposed of in burn piles.

While it’s certainly faster, easier, and cheaper to do a wholesale clearing on large acreage, you don’t have to raze manzanita to make it safer for fires. Some prefer to clear by hand, leaving selected trees which are limbed up, so they make sculptural shapes which don’t allow potential fires to jump from crown to blazing crown. It also allows the trees full scope to shape themselves as  specimen plants, unhindered by close-growing others.

It was spring when  I was first introduced to manzanita, the time when the pale-pink flowers dangle from the jade-green leaves like  earrings. Manzanita flowers are our first sign of spring – they bloom in February through April, depending on the year and location – and scent the air with a high, light sweetness on sunny days. Hummingbirds and bees buzz out of the woodwork to sip the blooms, and it isn’t just the birds and the bees doing it. I knew an herbalist, when I first came up here, who showed me how to extract a single drop of nectar from the newly-opened flowers. “Put it in a little vial, and share it with someone you love,” he said. The sweet nectar has an astringent aftertaste, not only a reflection of the tannic acid in the leaves, but possibly a commentary on other kinds of sweetness,  on the need for contrasts.

As a flower essence (a homeopathic remedy that addresses emotional conditions, different from an essential oil), manzanita encourages groundedness and an appreciation of the delights of being in a body. Maybe that herbalist was on to something.

Like the high-mountain manzanitas, ghost manzanita is related to heather, uva-ursi, wintergreen, and madrone, all of which share the same kind of flower. It’s typically called urn-shaped, although I’d say that’s for lack of any better description. Whatever the best name for the shape, it’s designed to keep the sexual parts of the flower protected from wind and weather, and give insects protection while they pollinate.

Manzanita provides food, medicine, construction material, fine carving material, firewood, beauty, and an impetus for love. One of our most generous and versatile plants,  it holds up our hard clay foothills from erosion and gives us one of our first hopes of spring.

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{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond April 12, 2009, 4:02 pm

    A beautiful plant with a fascinating background!

  • Steve April 12, 2009, 5:11 pm

    While we gush over imported things like gorgeous Cherry trees and Hinoki Cypress plants, Italian Cypresses or even thoise bizarre cultivars like Weeping Sequoia’s, we miss those gorgeous and plentiful native plants right outside our doors. You do such a magnificent bit of research in your natives, I am in awe. I’m inspired to do the same with my local state plant: the Oregon Grape. I absolutely love this site. Keep it up!

  • Town Mouse April 12, 2009, 5:45 pm

    What an amazing plant! I can’t wait for the baby manzanitas I planted last fall to grow up…

  • Pomona Belvedere April 12, 2009, 11:09 pm

    Manzanita is an amazing plant, beautiful and useful. And I sure hope to see a post on Town Mouse’s planted manzanitas, something I’ve never tried. I do see small manzanitas increasingly used in low-water shopping mall plantings in our area, a long overdue appreciation of a great native.

    Steve, I would love to see a serious writeup on Oregon Grape, a plant I love but don’t know as well as I could.

  • cyd April 13, 2009, 7:31 am

    Thank you Pomona. I had forgotten about those trees. I grew up in California and used to love looking at the beautiful silky wood on our hiking trips to the mountains.

  • Karen - An Artist's Garden April 15, 2009, 4:28 pm

    Beautiful images of a lovely plant Pomona, I have enjoyed reading more about the Manzanita
    K

  • ryan April 20, 2009, 11:33 am

    Great info on manzanitas. They’re one of my favorites. I love how the dead and live wood can exist on the same trunk. I wish the berries were just a little tastier…

  • Pomona Belvedere April 20, 2009, 11:55 am

    Glad to meet another manzanita fan, and a fellow appreciator of dead and living wood together. If you take the link on “berries” in this post, there are recommendations on how you might make the berries tastier Or perhaps you already know them and just long for something juicier.

  • Kate Marianchild December 19, 2011, 12:10 pm

    Dear Pomona,
    I appreciate your knowledge and your writing. I am writing a book on plants and animals of the oak woodlands and am currently working on manzanita. I wonder if you know the biology of the intermingling of dead and live wood (unique to manzanita, as far as I know), and/or its survival value for the plant.

    Thanks,

    Kate Marianchild (Ukiah)

  • Paul Astin September 26, 2013, 2:33 pm

    I am grateful for this lovely information. I am starting a school called Manzanita, and am thrilled to build a beautiful story about this remarkable plant.

  • Andrea April 28, 2015, 11:09 am

    Great information. I was wondering if all manzanita’s burn with the violet blue hue or just the ghost variety? I have a McMinn and a Ghost so just wanted to be sure.

  • Kate Marianchild April 28, 2015, 12:35 pm

    Dear Pomona,
    Thanks for these lovely musings. I gave a slide presentation on manzanita (A. manz and A. glauca) and CA buckeye on Sunday and someone mentioned the “fluorescent leaves” of manzanita in headlights at night. I notice that more with madrone, but maybe that’s because we don’t have A. viscida here where I live (NW of Ukiah. I love “dangle from the jade-green leaves like earrings.” Have you seen my book yet? It came out last July: Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals among California’s Oaks. I think you’d enjoy it. I don’t have a website yet but people can get both books and close-focusing binoculars through me directly. Email katem(at)mcn.org. Kate

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