Manzanita has always held a whiff of romance for me. In the wet Pacific Northwest, one would not expect to see much of this chaparral-dweller, yet there are several species, and they get more numerous near the California border. You may spot the beautiful wide, blueish-green leaves and red bark of hairy manzanita, (Arctostaphylos columbiana) clinging to steep, rocky basalt hillsides on Mary’s Peak west of Corvallis, or in the Columbia Gorge.
The genus Arctostaphylos is in the heath family (Ericaceae). When it blooms you will recognize the stamp of the heathers or heaths in its waxy urn-shaped flowers. Like Arbutus, another heath family plant, it sports attractive red bark that gets better as the shrub matures. These plants specialize in endurance, and therefore grow slowly.
Manzanita seems to have a flexible genome, because species hybridize with one another, giving us variety, resilience, and the ability for breeders to bring “nativars” (a cultivated variety of a native plant created by selection and/or breeding) onto the market. Look for these hardy, attractive evergreens in specialty nurseries but be sure you have suitable habitat for them, otherwise you may have trouble keeping them happy. Make sure you check the mature size, so they will continue to look good in the space you have. Fortunately, they come in many mature sizes.
If you have a sunny, well-drained spot with poor soil, you are in luck. That’s how to make lemonade out of the lemons of a newly constructed home where topsoil is removed or turned topsy turvy with subsoil on top. I dug a hole in a gravel driveway for mine, brought up some gravelly clay soil from below to mix with a bit of compost to retain enough water the first year, and voila! Arctostaphylos “white lanterns” is well on it’s way. This cultivar is great for bees and pollinators very early in Spring when pollen and nectar are scarce. The blooms are unusually abundant on the plant. See photos of the beautiful arbutus-like bark developing on my young one, and other evergreens here.
Check out the links above for the romantic history of manzanita’s name, distribution, and numerous species and cultivars.