John Muir describes finding a manzanita whose trunk was four feet in diameter, but branched out at eighteen inches high. That was at 6,000 feet. The resulting tree-bush, as he describes it, formed a broad round head ten or twelve feet high. So obviously not all mountainous manzanita is petite.
I’m guessing that the manzanita he found was the taller, brighter-green manzanita that grows in the high mountains, Arctostaphylos patula. It doesn’t usually get as high as twelve feet, so the one Muir found was exceptional.
The ones I know go to about four or five feet. I always find their bright green leaves a novelty, since the manzanitas where I live are such a pale white-green. When the sun shines through the bright green leaves of mountainous manzanita, they are a stunning sight.
These manzanita leaves can be used in the same way as Arctostaphylos nevadensis. And there’s an additional use for them which isn’t needed in the high mountains: as a poison oak remedy. In my area, there are two commercial preparations for poison oak which involve manzanita-leaf tea. One is a spray; the other is a very effective clay concoction with manzanita tea in it.
Arctostaphylos patula bushes are also heavy bearers of berries. “Manzanita” translates to “little apple”; you can see why this name might have come to mind. This bush is loaded with berries which are the size of the berries on the taller manzanitas where I live. They’re food for a lot of wildlife. These lower bushes in the rocks are especially climbable for little critters without wings.
People eat manzanita berries, too. They aren’t juicy, the way you usually think of berries. When manzanita berries are ripe, they are dry, a bit powdery, and astringent-sweet. When you’re walking in the woods, sucking on a manzanita berry can quench your thirst. Make sure it’s really ripe, though, or you’ll get a lot more pucker than saliva. And don’t crunch through to the seed: they’re astringent enough to dry your mouth up again.
It’s most likely that this thirst remedy was passed down by the Native Americans in manzanita-growing areas. Manzanita was a major food crop in the areas where it grows, since it’s abundant and easy to harvest. The lower-elevation manzanitas had many names, since it was an important crop. I haven’t found names for Arctostaphylos patula, but since many Native Americans summered in the high mountains (and left their grinding holes to prove it), it’s likely they made use of the high-mountain manzanitas as well as the ones in their winter homes down the hill.
Manzanita berry powder was made into a sort of cider, or ground and cooked in hot ashes like mush. Some people ate the powder in cakes, or stirred up with dry powdered salmon–an early energy food. There seems to have been a lot of celebration with the manzanita harvest. Manzanita berries are not only abundant, they’re sweet, and a craving for sweetness is not just a modern trait.
Sweetness is certainly what’s attracted me. Besides eating the berries straight, I’ve also had the pleasure of manzanita-berry lemonade, which is basically a tea of the powder soaked in cold water.
If you want to try the easy modern way, you can use a blender, as a friend of mine does. After you’ve blended them, though, you still have to find some way to sift or sieve the fine powder from the substantial seeds. Or you can just leave the seeds in and strain out the tea. The taste is a little less sweet, but doubtless there are useful nutrients in the seeds.
I had never thought of growing manzanita before I read up on it for this article. Manzanita is just there. But if you want to try it, Chatfield recommends getting starts at a nursery. Like many wild plants, manzanita is hard to start or transplant, and like many shrubs, it’s slow-growing. He says that, while they tolerate drought, watering them will make them grow faster, and bear more flowers and berries. He also says they grow in sun and shade.
This may well be true. Since I haven’t grown them, I can only say what I’ve observed about seeing them grow: the few I’ve seen in shade look straggly and small and rarely bear anything. This Arctostaphylos patula is growing in the high part-shade of red firs (the little bush in front of it is a chinquapin). Obviously it does get some sun, but you can see it’s much skimpier than the ones in the sun; it’s got a lot of its elegant red-brown skeleton next to it. And there are no berries.
There are many varieties of manzanita, so it might make sense to look for one that lives in the climate closest to yours. And while watering may help them thrive, especially in the first couple of years, I’ve never seen or heard of any manzanitas growing in any area except a dry-summer one. And they tend to grow either on slopes or crushed granite or both, so: drainage drainage drainage.
Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy manzanitas in the wild. The ones in my area are long since over (they bloom in about February; the fruit’s ripe in early summer). But, in the moutains, Arctostaphylos patula is just getting to harvest season. The berries will turn dull red when they ripen.
They haven’t got long. You can get snow in September in the high mountains. Six weeks to two months after this picture was taken, things will start freezing up.
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