The ultimate shrub of the west
No other shrub is more symbolic of the Pacific Coast than Manzanita. From Baja to Canada one species or another is native from the coast to the mountains. Picturesque bark and familiar flowers make them great transitional shrubs from cultivated borders to wild areas. In the Pacific Northwest they are great echos for Madrones and are at home in a variety of landscapes.
Pink to white urn-shaped flowers appear for a long time in late winter to spring and followed by copious amounts of small shiny fruit. Manzanita is Spanish for “little apple” to which the fruit resemble. One reason they are such striking shrubs is that they hold their evergreen leaves perpendicular to the sun- an adaptation to avoid moisture loss. The myth that Manzanitas are difficult to cultivate most likely comes from the fact that they do not take well to regular summer irrigation. In a garden where summer watering is non-existent they are among the easiest and most handsome shrubs one can grow. They do best in acid soil on slopes with full sun and good air circulation. The best size to plant of a Manzanita is a 6″ or 1 gallon pot or a two gallon pot but no larger. The majority grow so incredibly fast that we find the smaller the better they establish. Large sizes are prone to wind rock which can afflict them if they do not develop a sufficient root system.
Arctostaphylos make excellent container subjects as long as the plant is not subject to overwatering. Many varieties will live happily in pots for years and will eventually develop gnarled, bonsai-like characteristics. Water when dry and in early spring apply a handful of all organic fertilizer around the roots. Arctostaphylos have many, many wiry roots meant to extract nutrients from a wide zone. Remember this when containerizing them. Large species can fill a pot with roots in just a year or two. Again, this requires annual fertilizer applications to maintain good health. Also, the restricted roots in containers means that the plant will grow quite a bit more reservedly than when it can stretch out in the ground.
Pruning Arctostaphylos is very easy. To maintain a compact plant or to increase density simply tip prune new growth after it has emerged- after flowering has ended. Just tip off the few leaves at the end of each stem. For more radical pruning its important to understand that you can prune on current growth (with leaves) and it will resprout. Older wood without leaves (and probably peeling bark) will NOT sprout from dormant buds. There are none. This comes into play 3-4 years after establishment. Most pruning is done to eliminate dead or useless twigs around the base of the plant. To “lift it up” and expose the lovely peeling stems/trunk you can remove these branches at any time. This also importantly improves air circulation. Make these cuts carefully. Make a cut stand back and evaluate before you make another. The majority of specimens benefit from this treatment in the long run. Use sharp and powerful secateurs as the wood is very strong. To limit the size of a Manzanita see the first method. So- you can limited size and increase density by pruning into green (between leaves). If you prune leafless wood there will be NO re-sprouting from that wood. Its permanent.
Avoid amendments, mulch with bark, NOT COMPOST. Mud that splashes on lower leaves in winter/during irrigation can result in black spot (fungal disease) on the lowest leaves. Coarse bark mulch prevents mud splash as well as inhibiting weeds. Newly planted Manzanitas can take weekly irrigation until they begin to grow in earnest- then taper off. Eventually, they are best with no water during the warm months and can handle the driest of years with no visible stress. Manzanitas bloom on wood from the previous year. They may be tip pruned to limit size and as they age they can be limbed up to reveal the striking bark. This also helps ensure good air circulation which they very much appreciate. All are evergreen (of course).
Climate Adapted Plants for Gardeners in the PNW