There’s nothing better for all-season attraction in the garden than manzanitas, according to Bart O’Brien. As a rule, manzanitas like full sun, good air circulation and good drainage, but they are more adaptable than people realize, he said.
O’Brien, director of special projects at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) in Claremont, is co-author of the standard reference on native gardening, “California Native Plants for the Garden” (Cachuma Press, 2005). He spoke at a local symposium on native plants last month.
According to O’Brien, four features make manzanitas stand out: bark, shape, texture and color.
• Bark: typically deep reddish brown, muscular and smooth (though shaggy-barked varieties exist as well), usually visible through the leaves and with a sculptural structure often becoming more prominent with age.
• Shape: rounded forms, varying from the formal ball shape of a young Greensphere manzanita to spreading mounds.
• Texture: stiff evergreen leaves form a nice backdrop, softened by the small rounded flowers and fruits.
• Color: leaves vary from medium green to gray-green and bluish green, some with reddish tints, and the new spring growth often offers a contrast. Depending on the variety, white to dark-pink flowers can appear from fall to early spring, but most manzanitas bloom in the winter. Fruits are reddish.
O’Brien’s favorite manzanita, Arctostaphylos australis, is one of five manzanitas native to Baja California. In bloom, the profuse pink or white flowers contrast strikingly with gray-green leaves. It resembles Stanford’s manzanita, O’Brien said, but the Baja manzanita is easier to grow in garden settings and has grayer leaves. The only place I know that sells the Baja manzanita, though, is RSABG’s plant sale.
His second-favorite manzanita is widely available from nurseries. It’s Edmunds manzanita, a spreading groundcover that has several named cultivars and tolerates part shade, clay soil and some summer water. Most varieties stay 1-3 feet high for decades. It is used to control erosion on slopes or under native oaks.
For clay soil, other dependable manzanitas include:
• Howard McMinn manzanita, the easiest and most adaptable one of all and “still one of the best,” O’Brien said. It can reach 8 feet high and nearly twice as wide but can be pruned to fit into a 5- to 6-foot space.
• Sunset manzanita, which forms a spreading mound roughly 5-8 feet high. Its new growth is coppery and its dense leaves hide the branches. It can serve as a screen or background.
• Parry or common manzanita, a small rounded tree approximately 10-12 feet high, notable for its gorgeous bark and graceful structure. One of the most common cultivars is Dr. Hurd, which can be used as a specimen or focal point.
The most difficult problem with manzanitas in gardens is inadequate watering when they’re young, O’Brien said. Because the rigid leaves don’t wilt to let you know they need water, for the first year he plants non-native “sacrificial annuals” near newly planted manzanitas. The annuals will wilt when they need water, and if you water them just enough to keep them alive – but no more – you won’t be overwatering the manzanita. In the winter, for instance, he uses Iceland poppy as his sacrificial annual.