By Greg Rubin.
First published in Let's Talk Plants! April 2011, no. 199.
I can’t think of a group of plants more underappreciated than our native manzanitas. The genus Arctostaphylos encompasses an astonishing array of plant habits and habitats. The bulk of them occur from British Columbia down to Central America and west to Colorado, with the center of concentration in California. The bearberries or kinnikinnick, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, have adapted to northern climates and occur in all circumpolar regions of the world, including Europe and Asia. Typical of the genus, all forms share satin- red bark, evergreen foliage, and red, edible (often delicious) berries that resemble small apples, even down to a tart aftertaste.
Some Arctostaphylos are drought tolerant enough to naturalize without any supplemental irrigation; others would be happy planted next to a lawn! Many make wonderful groundcovers only inches high; other form beautiful, stately small trees up to 20 feet tall. We have a number of species native to San Diego, including Rainbow Manzanita, A. rainbowensis, Eastwood Manzanita, A. glandulosa, with lots of sub-species, Bigberry Manzanita, A. glauca, Mexican Manzanita, A. pungens, Otay manzanita, A. otayensis, and Pinkbract Manzanita, A. pringlei drupacea. Many of these local wild species have considerable landscape value, though they can be more demanding of conditions similar to where they occur. (https://calscape.org/loc-California/Manzanita%20(all)/vw-list/np-0? )
In addition to the local native varieties, there is a whole slew of hybrids and cultivars that have been proving their worth in native landscapes for years. The following examples are categorized by size:
Tree Forms: ‘Austin Griffith’ and ‘Dr. Hurd’ are two of the best known larger manzanitas. They top out at 12-20 feet tall and make wonderful accent and patio trees. The leaves of ‘Dr. Hurd’ are so large that it somewhat represents a Madrone (but is much easier to grow in Southern California). Both varieties are quite landscape tolerant and can grow three to four feet per year.
Medium Shrub Forms: ‘Sunset’ Manzanita is one of my all-time favorites; it is a 4-6’ shrub whose tips are colored in every warm tone of the setting sun. It is tolerant of a wide variety of conditions and soil types. ‘Howard McMinn’ is another variety that is equal in size and cultivation but green in color. ‘Louis Edmunds’ is upright to 8’ with strong branching structure and very tolerant of clay soil. ‘Ian Bush’ and ‘Mama Bear’ are also nice upright varieties with good structure.
Groundcover Forms: The old stand-by in this class is A. uva-ursi‘Emerald Carpet’, which likes water and is less than 6” high. Other beautiful forms of this species include ‘Wood’s Compact’, ‘Point Reyes’, and ‘Radiant’ (my personal favorite). These would be great under an olive tree, for example. ‘Pacific Mist’ is a gray, sprawling form that makes a nice color contrast with the greens. ‘John Dourley’ is an immensely colorful low growing form that I have been using extensively and love. And finally, the amazing A. hookeri franciscana (now extinct in the wild) is a wonder saved for cultivation that is low, fast, tight, and adaptable.
Try manzanitas in your garden. Plant them without amendments or fertilizer. Water them occasionally with a hose. You should be pleasantly surprised.