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Manzanitas: The bones of the garden

Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Proper pruning reveals the sinuous branching structure and beautiful bark of larger manzanitas.

You don’t need to prune manzanitas, according to landscape designer Pete Veilleux, but if you do, you can reveal the spectacular mahogany bark and sculptural branch structure. If you plant a manzanita near a path or driveway, carefully prune each branch that grows toward the path. That way, you can create a clear view of the structure from the path while maintaining the leafy cover and hummingbird-attracting flowers on the other sides of the shrub.

Veilleux, who runs East Bay Wilds Native Plant Nursery and Landscape Service, spends a lot of time observing native plants in the wild and uses that knowledge to inform his landscape work. At a talk sponsored by the Gardening with Natives group of the California Native Plant Society earlier this year, Veilleux shared photos of manzanitas in the wild and in gardens and discussed 50 or so favorites.

Manzanitas are the bones of the garden, according to Veilleux. Long-lived, evergreen, beautiful and drought-tolerant once established, they require good drainage. Taking his cues from nature, where he typically finds several species growing together, Veilleux plants at least two to five species of manzanita in nearly every garden he installs. Most manzanitas prefer full sun, though a few can tolerate bright shade. He chooses manzanitas with contrasting leaf colors and in sizes ranging from groundcovers to tall shrubs.

Following are some cultivars and varieties Veilleux recommended.

• Austin Griffiths manzanita reaches 8-10 feet high, is very easy to grow and takes pruning and garden conditions well. Its best feature is large clusters of Pepto Bismol pink flowers.

• Franciscan manzanita, also easy to grow, is a brilliant-green groundcover that grows very wide and flourishes in bright shade under pine trees, as long as no tree branches are touching it. Manzanitas do best under pines, not oaks, Veilleux added.

• Bigberry manzanita is stunning with “red red bark” and whitish leaves. When young, the leaf colors change through the year, from yellow-green new growth to gray-blue. Veilleux found one in the wild that’s 35 feet high, but in gardens it stays approximately 10 feet high.

• Greensphere is “the slowest-growing manzanita in the world” but needs more water than most manzanitas. Veilleux has kept one in a container for 10 years. Unlike most manzanitas, which can grow in pots for three to five years but eventually need to go in the ground, it can stay potted. In the ground, it forms a 3-foot sphere, reaching 4-5 feet in time. Dense leaves clothe a gnarly trunk, and it flowers nicely.

• John Dourley is “one of the most useful manzanitas.” It’s a knee-high groundcover that spreads 10-15 feet and eventually grows thigh-high. Bronzy new leaves make it stand out, and it can tolerate bright shade.

• Sunset manzanita is another very easy, smallish, globe-shaped plant that can get 4-5 feet around but is easy to prune to 3-4 feet.

Most manzanitas prefer mineral mulch such as rocks or decomposed granite. Veilleux showed a gopher-proof planting with manzanitas and decomposed granite between pavers.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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