By Linda Jones.
As I was driving through a newer development recently, I was struck by the similarity of all of the gardens: each had a small lawn and a few palms or tropical shrubs. There was not a single California native plant in sight. These must be expensive gardens to maintain, since they require mowing as well as lots of water and fertilizer. At the same time, they provide little to no habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. I have to wonder why we do not see more California natives used in landscapes instead of plants that require copious summer water. With the warming of the climate, scientists project more warm days and less rainfall. Water will inevitably become more costly. Can these non-native, water hungry plants survive? Who can afford the resources to retain them in their gardens?
I was happy to come home to my unstructured, low water, California native garden. One of my go-to plants for filling spaces with interesting colors, shapes, flowers and lush all-year green is manzanita. There are so many varieties and they can fill a number of roles in a garden: groundcover, medium shrubs and shrub-trees up to 15-20 feet tall. Lovely clusters of white or pink flowers cover the plant in winter or spring, (depending on the species) making pollinators happy. Later in the year, the berries ripen, giving other wildlife some food.
The larger varieties form attractive structural shapes with beautiful red bark as they slowly grow to maturity. They need no fertilizer or pruning and very little water. In addition, these plants provide homes to lizards, birds, butterflies and other insects. They are also not particularly messy (unlike the neighborhood eucalyptus, which have been shedding heavily into my yard). What is not to like about a garden of manzanita?
Since California has 90 endemic manzanita species, and there are an even greater number of cultivars, there is a perfect manzanita plant for everyone. If one does not work out in your garden or with your gardening methods, try another.
Native plants can be a little temperamental. I have killed many in the process of finding ones that work in the open spots in my garden and suit my skills as a gardener (in other words, which ones can survive languishing in pots or without water). However, as I have learned more about manzanitas, I have found species and varieties that are easy for me to grow and bring that California wilderness vibe, as well as wildlife, to my garden.
For example, I planted a low-growing manzanita, Arctostaphylos ‘Pacific Mist,’ next to a tall manzanita A. bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds,’ intending the latter to be the focal point for that part of my garden. ‘Louis Edmunds’ is a large shrub with beautiful deep purple bark, light green leaves and a twisted shape. However, after two years, ‘Pacific Mist,’ the low growing form, likes the sunny berm better and is taking it over. ‘Pacific Mist’ is a sprawling plant with twisting, arching branches. The foliage near the coast is a lovely green and new growth is bright green. Inland the foliage tends to be grayish-green. After only two years, it is almost 3 feet high and over 5 feet wide. It is a beautiful plant; it just sprawled very fast. To make the plant denser, pinch the new growth back. My specimen has not bloomed yet, however the cultivar is known for being a sporadic bloomer.
Besides its attractive form and colors, ‘Pacific Mist’ is a forgiving plant, tolerating heavy soils and garden-type irrigation. It thrives near the coast, where it tolerates sandy soils and salt. Like most manzanitas, it requires little water, although a deep summer watering occasionally is good for it. It is a good choice for slopes, or cascading over a wall. ‘Pacific Mist’ was found in Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in 1981. Possibly, it is a hybrid of Arctostaphylos silvicola, one of the grayest foliage manzanitas, which is endemic to the sand dunes of Santa Cruz County.
Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds’ is quite different. It can grow 6-10 high and wide and is known for its well-branched tree-like shape, made more striking by pruning the lower branches in November. It is a good choice as a specimen tree in smaller gardens. The bark is a deep purple-red contrasting with the light green foliage. In its native Sonoma County, it is threatened by development and has become rare. ‘Louis Edmunds’ is a good wildlife magnet, drawing in quail and wren tits; I remain hopeful that these will come as the tree develops. The pink flower clusters in spring attract in hummingbirds and other pollinators. This is plant that does well in heat and drought but appreciates a deep watering from time to time.
Linda Jones is a Master Gardener learning about, and interested in, native plants.