The Manzanitas are a subgenus of the genus Arctostaphylos. They are evergreen shrubs or small trees present in the chaparral biome of western North America, where they occur from southern British Columbia in Canada, Washington to California and New Mexico in the United States, and throughout much of northern and central Mexico. They are characterised by smooth, orange or red bark and stiff, twisting branches. There are about 60 species of manzanita, ranging from ground-hugging coastal and mountain species to small trees up to 6m tall. Manzanitas bloom in the winter to early spring and carry berries in spring and summer. The berries and flowers of most species are edible.
See also Bearberry for other species in the same genus.
The word manzanita is the Spanish diminutive of manzana (apple). A literal translation would be little apple. The name manzanita is also sometimes used to refer to species in the related genus Arbutus, which is known by that name in the Canadian area of the tree's range, but is more usually known as madroño, or madrone in the United States.
Traditional uses of the plant include collecting the berries, drying them, and grinding them up into a coarse meal. Fresh berries and branch tips were also soaked in water and drunk, making a refreshing cider. When the bark curls off, it can be used as a tea for nausea and upset stomach . The younger leaves are sometimes plucked and chewed by hikers to deter thirst. Native Americans used Manzanita leaves as toothbrushes.
Manzanitas are extremely useful as ornamental plants in the western United States and other similar climate zones. They are evergreen, highly drought-tolerant, have picturesque bark and attractive flowers and berries, and come in many sizes and growth patterns. A. columbiana, for example, is hardy enough to be used for highway landscaping in western Oregon and Washington. A. 'emerald carpet', A. uva-ursi, and other low-growing manzanitas are extremely valuable evergreen groundcovers for dry slopes. Larger varieties can be grown as individual specimens, and pruned to emphasize the striking pattern and colors of the branches. They prefer light, well-drained soil, although the low-growing ground covers will tolerate heavier soils.
Manzanita branches are popular as decoration, due to their unique shape, color, and strength when dried.
The wood is notoriously hard to cure, mostly due to cracking against the grain, giving it few uses as timber. The slow growth rate and many branchings further decrease the sizes available. Some furniture and art employ whole round branches, which reduces cracking and preserves the deep red color.
The dead wood decays slowly and can last for many years, on and off the plant. Sunlight smooths and bleaches manzanita to light grey or white, rendering it superficially akin to animal bones. Because of this and the stunted growth of many species, manzanita is often collected in its more unusual shapes, giving it the nickname mountain driftwood.
Manzanita wood is also used as perches for parrots and other large pet birds. The branches of the larger species are extremely long-lasting for this purpose.
Some aquarium keepers use sandblasted manzanita as driftwood in planted aquaria because of its attractive forked growth and its chemical neutrality. If properly cleaned and cured, it holds up well over extended periods of submersion. The wood is also resistant to the leaching of tannins into the water column, a problem often found with other aquarium driftwoods. When used as driftwood, manzanita must often be either weighted down for several weeks or soaked first to counteract the wood's natural buoyancy.
Manzanita wood, when dry, is excellent for burning in a campfire, barbecue, fireplace, or stove. It is dense and burns at a high temperature for long periods. However, caution should be exercised, because the high temperatures can damage thin-walled barbecues, and even crack cast iron stoves or cause chimney fires.