Manzanita - A Source of Fire, Cider, and Art

Manzanita carving of an Indian maiden.
Manzanita carving of an Indian maiden. | Source

A Plant with Many Uses

Indigenous peoples living along the Pacific coast of California regarded the Manzanita plant as a sacred gift, and found many uses for it.

The dense branches and stiff stems could be used to get a hot cooking fire going when other woods were too damp to ignite and burn well.

The berries could be used to make a refreshing beverage, or pulverized and stirred into acorn porridge or dough for biscuits.

The bush also had medicinal uses.

One was to make a soothing antidote for the stinging pain of poison oak. Some modern remedies for Poison Oak still use ingredients derived from Manzanita.

Its astringent qualities provided other medical benefits that were known by tribal peoples.

The hard wood was sometimes used for tools and utensils, or as a backbone for basketry. Dyes made from the plant could be used on basket materials.

Carving Manzanita Wood requires power tools. The hardness of the wood makes knives, chisels and other hand tools almost useless. Selecting wood which has dried slowly, so that it does not split and crack is crucial.

In the above carving, artist and carver Ed Frank used natural variations in wood color to enhance the pleasing quality of the form. The hair of the figure was darkened by using a burning tool.

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Range and Variety

There are many varieties of Manzanita growing in the chaparral areas of California's hills and mountains.

Their range actually extends from southern British Columbia down through Arizona and New Mexico as well as into northern and central Mexico.

With more than 100 species, the plants vary in size and growth pattern, from region to region.

Though it may be better described as an evergreen bush or shrub, some of the most common varieties do get to be tree sized with multiple trunks branching up and out to reach heights of 20 ft or more.

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A Springtime Surprise

Like many trees and bushes, Manzanita blooms in the Spring.

Clusters of tiny, pale pink, blossoms appear briefly and then drop to the ground where they sometimes carpet the floor of the forest like an April snow flurry.

The delicacy of the flowers, in their form and color, are a stark contrast to the stiff, strong character of the branches and the leathery grey-green leaves.

Manzanita blooms

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Delicate Blossoms

The blooms, hanging in generous clusters are shaped like tiny urns or vases, tipped upside down.

Some sources say that the flowers, themselves can be eaten, but it seems that a better use is to let them develop into berries.

When the blossoms drop, they are soon replaced with developing berry clusters -- "the little apples".

The Spanish Franciscan Friars, who established a chain of mission churches in California named the plant for the berries, a diminuitive version of "manzana" the Spanish word for apple.

The Fruit

The fruits are green at first and gradually develop their red/brown hue as they mature.

Starting out a pale color, the berries are even said to have the flavor of a tart green apple.

As they mature, they dry and develop the dark reddish hue.

They are sometimes soaked and strained to produce a tangy cider drink with a hint of sweetness.

They can also be used to make a syrup or jelly.

The berries have nutritional value, being high in antioxidants, potassium and Vitamin C.

When ripe, they are dry, rather than juicy and are usually pulverized and mixed with water.

Manzanita Berries

Ripe and ready for cider-making.
Ripe and ready for cider-making. | Source
Quail sculpture by Ed Frank
Quail sculpture by Ed Frank | Source
Detail of sculpture by  Ed Frank
Detail of sculpture by Ed Frank | Source

Habitat for Critters

Manzanita plants, growing wild, can create a thick and formidable barrier of intertwined trunks and twisting branches.

A thicket of mature shrubs can make an area difficult or impossible to traverse for deer and other large wildlife

For this reason, it provides protective habitat for small animals and birds. Many of them also eat the berries.

Birds, such as the California Quail, which nests on the ground and lays a clutch of about a dozen eggs, can find a hiding place here where predators have a hard time finding them in the dense underbrush.

The quail chicks after hatching, spend their time skating along the ground behind their parents and popping in and out of the passageways of their Manzanita labyrinth.

The stylized quail sculptures shown at right were power carved by Ed Frank from Manzanita wood with a natural oiled finish.

Manzanita thicket.
Manzanita thicket. | Source

Who Lives in Here?

The strong dense wood deteriorates slowly. Even dead, sunbleached limbs do not break down easily, but remain stiff and strong.

The twisting branches trap leaves and pine needles which all become part of the protective barrier.

Property owners sometimes just bulldoze the impenetrable mass of branches to create open space, but many people leave some of the plants in place.

They clear out the dead limbs and trim up the lower branches to expose the beautiful shape of the plant. This also creates open space between them and reduces fire danger.

The outer bark, dries, curls and flakes off.
The outer bark, dries, curls and flakes off. | Source

Manzanita Curls

The manzanita shrub does not have a rough outer bark like most trees and large bushes.

The outer layer of stems and branches is hard and smooth for most of the year. During it's growing season a thin skin peels off the surface, drying into tiny bits of crisp, curled tissue that slough off to reveal another smooth surface.

The flaky exfoliation can be seen in the photo above.

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Using branches to decorate.

Wood Uses

Manzanita wood, for many reasons, is not suitable for construction purposes or furniture making.

It is sometimes used as a fire accelerator, because it burns hot and long-- so hot, in fact, that it can damage an iron wood-burning stove or start a chimney fire if used improperly. It is useful for getting other wood to ignite for an outdoor campfire.

The wood is brittle, stiff and hard to cut whether growing or dead. It takes a long time to dry, and when it does, it tends to split across the grain. A trunk rarely reaches more than eight inches in diameter at the most, so it is rarely suitable for large projects.

Stems are twisted and curved, and irregular.

For this last reason, they are a favorite of floral arrangers, decorators, craftspeople and artists.

The attractive twisting branches, when cleaned and treated, are strong enough to use for bird perches in aviaries. They are non toxic, so they can be used in aquariums or terrariums, as well. They won't hurt your fish or snakes.

A piece with many branches can make an attractive "money tree" decoration for the bride and groom with plenty of places to attach currency "leaves".

The dried branches are sometimes used for arbors or trellises in a garden, or made into artistic barriers or fences along a driveway.

Woodcarvers, especially some living in the western US, have made a specialty of sculpting the beautiful wood into attractive art objects.

Crudely trimmed thicket.
Crudely trimmed thicket. | Source
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Mature Manzanita tree embraces a large boulder. Rich soil is not required for this rugged survivor, but good drainage is important.
Mature Manzanita tree embraces a large boulder. Rich soil is not required for this rugged survivor, but good drainage is important. | Source

Two Ways to Trim

Someone made quite a mess of this, trying to clear and trim it with a hand saw. (above).

When properly trimmed out around the base, a mature shrub can make an attractive addition to a yardscape. (photo at right)

Landscaping

Like many wild plants, the Manzanita does not transplant well.

Certain varieties, grown in nurseries can be used for yard landscaping.

They do best in areas that have a dry summer and they tend to grow either on slopes or in rocky areas with good drainage. Most of the growth in the foothills is below 4500 ft. Occasional snows and freezes do not phase it.

Sandy well-drained soil suits manzanita plants fine, and once established, they don't need much water

Most of these commercially grown types are smaller and low growing, but do have similar leaf shapes and flowers as well as the reddish stems.

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Comments 21 comments

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Hi, Rochelle. You have enhanced my manzanita education tremendously with this informative and interesting hub. Thank you. And your photos are outstanding. I am fascinating by the beautiful quail carvings in particular.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you, drbj-- you are alsways so generous with your comments.

The carvings, including the Indian maid, were created by my hardworking and talented husband.

Most of the Manzanita bushes in the pictures are on our property-- or a short walk away in our neighborhood.

I really appreciate your comment, as I keep fighting off a niggling voice in the back of my head that says "people don't read articles about wilderness shrubs".

Thank you.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

I have never heard of manzanita before Rochelle, so thanks for all the great information. The pictures are also really gorgeous.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you, CMHypno. It is very common here, in its natural habitat.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Rochelle,

This is a wonderful and enlightening article about the Manzanita shrub/tree. I have seen them on my travels but learned so much more from reading this. Your husband's artistry is amazing. Such beautiful work! The next time I see a Manzanita, I will be thinking of all that I learned. Not only voting this up, beautiful, useful and interesting...but sharing this with my followers.


Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

I predict that this will soon be on the first page when you google manzanita, so much good information. Those sculptures are gorgeous too. One other thing about manzanita is that it has a close relationship with fire, which is a natural part of the ecosystem here in the foothills the germination of the seeds requires fire, it's always the first plant to re-establish after a fire, and as you mentioned it catches fire readily and burns hot to spread the fire.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you, Peggy W. I appreciate you comments and sharing.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you, Sherry Hewins. I hope 'G' notices something of mine, my views have plunged drastically in the past few weeks.

I thought I had read about the relationship between fire and germination, but didn't find a reference to confirm it... maybe I'll search again.


Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you-- I will check--- .


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 4 years ago from Southern California, USA

We have an abundance of manzanita trees in the San Bernardino Mountains, and I remember as a kid once my sister and I ate copious amounts of these berries off a tree. My mom was worried because she thought it was poisonous, so she called poison control to find out. Thankfully these berries were not, and I later learned how the local Serrano Indians made these a stable in their diet.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Yes, I grew up in So. Cal. Spent lots of time in Big Bear and Arrowhead.

Manzanita has a pretty wide natural range at the right altitudes.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, Wow! I have never heard of the Manzanita before, what a fantastic tree! the fact that it sheds is bark like in the photo, how amazing, and the sculptures are great. such a hard wood, and totally different, fascinating, I have learned something new! lol! voted up! cheers nell


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country Author

Thank you, Nell Rose. I don't suppose you would find them growing near you.

I decided to take a closer look at something I see commonly every day. When we first bought our property, here in the hills of California, we could not even really see our land because it was so densely covered with Manzanita and Deer Brush-- we do appreciate it more now that we have a little less of it.


poetryman6969 profile image

poetryman6969 2 years ago

I did not realize that there was beauty to had from manzanitas. Berries, flowers and those quail carvings.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country Author

When we first bought our property in the foothills, we really had a very vague idea of what it looked like. It was so thickly covered with Manzanita and Buckbrush that we couldn't see five feet in front of us.

When some the underbrush was cleared out, we had a better appreciation of the Manzanita. Thanks.


Linda Conforti 12 months ago

Rochelle, enjoyed your article tremendously. Learned quite a bit about the Manzanita. I have a question. What is the difference between Manzanita wood and Ironwood? Lived up in Big Bear for 20 years, and we used to burn Ironwood, when we could get it, only bigger in diameter than Manzanita.


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 12 months ago from California Gold Country Author

There are several species of trees and bush known as "ironwood". The desert iornwood native to the Sonoran desert areas is also very dense and heavy, with a darker in color than Manzanita. It also has a very different leaf shape and distinctive bark, so I don't think they are closely related. The Madrone tree, common to the Pacific side of Oregon, has a very similar, leaf, trunk and color -- also red berries, and is considered a relative. Thanks for commenting.


ptosis profile image

ptosis 5 months ago from Arizona

Too bad I can't give you a vote up like on youtube. I know a lot more about this tree that grows a alot here in the Huachuca mountains. :):)


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 5 months ago from California Gold Country Author

Thanks! I have come to love manzanita. Graceful and tough are qualities to be admired and imitated.


Kevin Franck profile image

Kevin Franck 4 weeks ago

Actually I find Manzanitas very easy to grow. The key is at planting time. Never plant a specimen bigger than a one gallon container plant. For me the same goes with trees of any type. I understand everybody wants instant landscape, but if planting is done correctly, these will surpass larger specimens later. You are planting for root infrastructure. I NEVER amend the soil. I ALWAYS inoculate with a good mycorrhizal fungal blend at time of planting. Mine comes from Mycorrhizal Applications Inc from Grant Pass, Oregon. Also as the article recommends, NEVER fertilize EVER. Fertilizer hinders root development and prevents symbiosis of Manzanita root with the mycorrhizae. This should be a money savings plus for everyone. I do not like drip systems as they tend to create a type of welfare entitlement dependency for which the plants will always want to remain on life-support, rather than mature and fend for themselves. Seriously folks it's the same with people. Give them a hand up, not a hand out. Deep Water once a week the first year, then taper off. California has a nasty drought, do supplement watering with slow soaking in winter to replicate normal winter precipitation. These past five years have had lousy inconsistent rainfall amounts. My experience with watering in 100+ F degrees in Summer is it encourages new foliage which can become easily blighted or powdery mildew which kills foliage. Also too much garden watering in surface root zone encourage pathogens there and will shorten the plant's lifespan. This is also true of most California natives.

Fun article here though. Thanks

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