Manzanita - A Source of Fire, Cider, and Art
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.
An Art Medium
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.
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.
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.
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 just leave them alone and let them develop into berries.
When the blossoms drop, they soon reveal 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 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 color.
When ripe, they are dry rather than juicy and are usually pulverized and mixed with water.
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.
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.
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 and a fine habitat for the quail and other wildlife.
Property owners sometimes just bulldoze the impenetrable mass of branches to create open space, but many people leave some of the plants in place. When the dead limbs are removed and the lower branches are trimmed up. the beautiful shape of the plant is revealed. Trimming also creates open space between the plants and reduces fire danger.
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.
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 using a large quantity at one time can damage an iron wood-burning stove or start a chimney fire if used improperly. Small pieces are useful for getting other woods to ignite in a wood stove or 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 art 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.
Two Ways to Trim
Someone made quite a mess of this, trying to clear and trim their manzanita with a hand saw.
When properly trimmed out around the base, a mature shrub can make an attractive addition to a yardscape.
Like many wild plants, the Manzanita does not transplant well.
Certain small 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.