Captivating manzanita is botanical perfection


There are some plants that you only need to encounter once and, instantly, you feel a connection to them that goes straight into your soul. They are like those rare people whom you meet by chance and yet, in a moment, you are overtaken with a sudden yearning to spend more time in their presence.

Manzanita is an instantly memorable plant. Delicately designed lantern-shaped flowers, essentially white but blushed with pink, are offset by leathery green leaves and deep cinnamon brown wood.

I don’t know what God was thinking when he created manzanita, but it must have been something like "And now, to give people a glimpse of botanical perfection, I think I’ll make a manzanita." Those inverted flower urns or lanterns may as well be crafted from Chinese silk, the foliage constructed of a unique green or blue-gray elastic polymer. As for manzanita wood, it has the look and feel of polished bronze sculpture.

Manzanita means "little apple" in Spanish and refers to the edible fruit. The botanical name, Arctostaphylos, denotes bear grapes (arcto = bear, staphyle = grape cluster), alluding to the fact that bears also snack on the fruit. Leaves are suitable for brushing your teeth and treating poison ivy.

Manzanitas are classic chaparral plants and require fire to germinate their seeds. Certain species may also survive fire by forming burls or thickened trunk bases that persist and send up new shoots following immolation of all top growth. Some of these stout, weathered burls are a thousand years old.

There are more than a hundred species of manzanita, nearly all native to California, and plenty of cultivars and hybrids, too. I have found that the bigger the species, the more chance it has of success in the garden.

I strongly recommend bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca), with gray-green foliage. It may grow as tall as 20 feet or more at maturity, making it easily the tallest of all manzanita species.

Common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) is another arborescent, dependable species. It may grow to 12 feet and has attractive blue-gray foliage. A shrubbier manzanita you might want to try is Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn,’ with a height and girth of 8 feet. Arctostaphylos ‘Pacific Mist’ is a 2-to-3-foot-tall haphazardly growing ground cover, Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ is a popular mounding hybrid growing a little more than a foot tall, and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a prostrate ground cover.

Be extremely cautious in pruning manzanita shrub and tree species since they do not recover well from cuts on branches more than a half inch in diameter.

Another California native to which I am partial is island tree mallow (Lavatera assurgentiflora), native to the Channel Islands. I am not going to make an all-encompassing statement about the wonders of this plant. I will only remark that its flower is uniquely attractive, with its deep magenta color and fascinating petal indentations. The plant itself is gangly and out of control. You can try to keep it inbounds with trimming, but why bother? It will serve as a somewhat see-through barrier, as it does reach more than 10 feet in height, but it lacks the dense growth habit of typical hedge selections. Maple-leaf-shaped leaves are interesting enough but, as a whole, the plant lacks classic aesthetic attributes. Still, for the flower alone, it deserves a place in the garden.

After a rain of the type we experienced lately, every plant seems to glow with ethereal beauty. Dust that you never noticed before has been washed from leaves to reveal glistening foliage beneath. Even an average gardener looks like a brilliant horticulturist after a rain. Plants that wore down over the course of summer’s debilitating heat are revived with bursts of irrigation from above.

Rain is essential for plant health in semidesert climates such as our own. Soil in arid zones such as the Southwest, including Southern California, tends to accumulate salts that inhibit plant growth. Rain leaches these salts down through the soil, past the root zone, where they cannot interfere with normal root functions of water and mineral absorption.

I was at the Getty Center the other day and was impressed with a small forest of aloe trees (Aloe barberae) underplanted with blue chalk sticks. Blue chalk sticks seems to grow in popularity by the hour. These days, you see it everywhere. It satisfies a need for constant color and, being a succulent, is water thrifty.

Two blue chalk stick species are encountered: Senecio mandraliscae, with slender leaves up to 4 inches long and growing up to 1 foot in height, and the more compact Senecio serpens, with stubbier, 2-inch leaves and a stature of only 6 inches. This latter species grows more slowly and holds up better under garden conditions than its larger counterpart.

Both are highly suitable for container gardens and hanging baskets. They can handle both full and partial sun exposures. Although frost sensitive, they seem to seem to endure a mild frost well enough owing to the fact that they generally enjoy protection from taller plants overhead. Blue chalk sticks are also used as edging in the barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) garden at the Getty.

Tip of the week

Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii) is a wonderful woody perennial that blooms, showing off yellow-orange flowers, most of the time. A member of the marigold genus, it is identifiable by its fragrance as much as by its heavy bloom habit and finely cut dark green foliage. I have always found its scent to be sweet and satisfying although some people find it offensive. Copper Canyon daisy blooms so long and so heavily that it appears to exhaust itself from the effort and, although growing over 6 feet tall, does not normally survive beyond its fourth or fifth birthday.

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