Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Apple #385: Manzanita plants

Now for another entry about the things I encountered during my recent trip to California.

As I was wandering around up in the hills of the high desert in southern California and looking at all the really fantastic plants around me, I noticed that the branches of one plant were two different colors. Some looked all dried out and dead-gray, and others were a bright red. Crazy! thought I.

I thought maybe one plant was growing right up next to another one, and that this was just a fluke. But I turned around, and there was another one. It was doing exactly the same thing.

I straightened up and looked about me and realized I was standing in a whole grove of these things. It was almost like an orchard that somebody had once planted and then abandoned. They were growing all over the place.

Only a small portion of the maybe hundreds of these plants growing on the north side of the hill.
(Photo by me, the Apple Lady)

I have since learned that the name for a whole bunch of plants growing together like this is "community."

After a few hours of walking around up there, I went into town into the local library. I was looking through some books they had about native desert plants, comparing the photos on my camera to the photos in the book, when a kind soul sitting across the table from me asked if I was looking up local plants, and was I trying to identify them. Yes, I was, I said.

His name was Oliver, he told me, and he very kindly looked at my photos of this odd plant and said right away that it was Big Berry Manzanita. Except first he told me the genus and species name (Arctostaphylos glauca). I blinked at him and asked him for the common name.

Big Berry Manzanita (according to Oliver)
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

It turned out he could identify nearly all the plants I had taken pictures of by both the genus and species name. He rattled these things off like they were his first and last name. So Oliver was extraordinarily helpful. Most of the plants whose pictures I may share with you in coming entries will probably be identified courtesy of Oliver's help.

Close-up of the leaves of the Big Berry Manzanita. Lots of the photos of this plant that I've seen online have a whitish-gray (glaucus) cast to them, and they look dusty. These leaves look pretty shiny to me. But one California nursery's site says that the Big Berry Manzanitas do well in very hot regions, including the Joshua tree woodlands. On the south side of this hill is where I saw all those Joshua trees. So even though these leaves don't look glaucus to me, I'm sticking with Oliver's identification -- Arctostaphylus glauca.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • There are all sorts of different species that get called by the common name of Manzanita. Some sources say 50, some say 76, others say as many as 106. Most of them grow in California, but some also grow in other places like Arizona and New Mexico, the Atlantic seaboard (Florida, Alabama, etc.), and even as far north as Canada.
  • Manzanita is Spanish for "little apple" because when these plants produce fruit, they do look like little apples.

I had thought these were berries, but Oliver told me they are actually galls. Galls, he explained, happen when insects burrow into the leaves or bark of a plant and lay their eggs in the tissue. The plant produces a lot of goo that swells up around the opening the bug has made -- sort of like a blister, I guess -- and the insect larva lives in there. Now that I know those are essentially bug pods, it makes me feel all itchy and crawly to look at them. Aren't you glad I shared this piece of knowledge with you?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

This is what the berries of the Big Berry Manzanita actually look like.
(Photo from Las Pilitas Nursery)

  • You can eat the berries and the flowers, too.
  • You can also make a cider-like drink with the berries, but don't go on a long trip afterwards because it's a pretty strong diuretic.
  • People have also used the bark to make tea, which supposedly helps to assuage nausea.
  • Butterflies and hummingbirds also like the flowers. In fact, as I was standing on the crest of the hill where these manzanitas grew, a really loud buzzing sound shot right past my left shoulder and I barely had time to whip my head around and see that it was a green hummingbird that had zoomed past me.
  • Manzanitas are evergreen plants, which means they don't lose their leaves.

The fact that manzanitas are evergreens seems a little strange because I saw a lot of them with brown leaves like this. Not only were some of the leaves on this plant brown, it was as if someone had drawn a line down half of the plant; all the leaves on the left were brown while all the leaves on the right were green. I don't know if you can tell this from the photo, but what's even more strange is that the trunks in the green leaves are gray, while the trunks among the brown leaves are red.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • The wood is orange or red because of all the tannins in it. Tannins are very bitter and, for some organisms, even toxic. So the tannins help protect the wood against bugs and animals. In addition, most manzanita bark peels off a layer each year, which helps to shed anything that might have grown on it in spite of the tannins.
  • People call manzanita "mountain driftwood" because the wood is so smooth and twists into such interesting shapes.
  • Because manzanita wood is so slow-growing, it's very dense, which makes it for good firewood because it will burn for a long time. Be careful if you're burning it in an oven or a chimney, though, because the wood can burn so hot it could crack even a cast-iron stove.
  • That's especially intriguing because botanists think that manzanitas originated about 15 million years ago and hybridized as the parent plants were burned up in fires. Some of the newer species will only produce viable seeds after a fire has heated up the plants.
  • It seems like these plants just keep getting associated with fire. One variety of manzanita plants is kinnikinnick, which a lot of native tribes used to smoke as tobacco or burn as offerings to the spirits.
  • One guy who makes his own pipes has made a few out of manzanita wood. They're pretty attractive.
  • People also like to use manzanita branches in aquariums because its tannins won't leach into the water. Bird-owners use manzanita as roosts for their pet birds because the twisty branches give the birds interesting things to hop and climb on, and the wood is smooth and strong.
  • Manzanitas are also becoming very popular to use in centerpieces. A lot of brides out there are frantically looking for manzanita branches. I'm not going to tell them where they can find these plants.

Here's some mountain driftwood for a bride's reception. Come on, it's nature.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

USDA Plants Profile, Arctostaphylos Adans. manzanita
Jeff Schalau, Arizona Cooperative Extension, Backyard Gardener, Growing Manzanita, February 26, 2003
Guillermo Cabrera, Manzanita Park
Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton, "Mysterious manzanita baffles homeowners,"
San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 2008
Las Pilitas Nursery, Manzanitas from Central California
Mike Vasey, Why is manzanita bark so smooth and red? BayNature, April-June 2003
Geoffrey Coffey, "Manzanita charms Bay Area terrain," San Francisco Chronicle, December 18, 2002
Biology Online, gall

1 comment:

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