How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Manzanita

With its peeling reddish bark and mysterious twisting branches, manzanita is an evergreen shrub in dry chaparral habitats. This iconic Western shrub thrives in dry xeriscapes with no irrigation. Garden expert Logan Hailey digs into everything you need to know about this striking tree with beautiful flowers and fruit.

A manzanita tree stands gracefully amidst the sun-drenched landscape, its branches reaching towards the sky, adorned with smooth, mahogany bark. The dappled sunlight highlights the intricate twists and turns, creating a mesmerizing dance of shadows.

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With its peeling reddish bark and mysterious twisting branches, manzanita is an iconic shrub in dry chaparral habitats. This evergreen native grows along the Pacific Coast from Baja, Mexico to southern British Columbia and eastward into Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Thriving in areas with dry summers and poor soils, manzanitas are surprisingly adaptable to almost any garden. They are low-maintenance plants that add gorgeous burgundy-red color and wildlife value to your garden. In the winter, their exfoliating bark offers vibrant mahogany hues that contrast the barren landscape.

Though sometimes grown as small trees, manzanitas have a shrubby habit with several sculptural branches that emerge from a central base. The lantern-like flowers of late winter yield to blush fruit clusters in early summer. The plants are excellent additions to a xeriscape or water-wise garden. Birds, native bees, and butterflies go wild for the blossoms and fruits.

Manzanitas belong to the Arctostaphylos genus, which includes about 60 species of evergreen shrubs, small trees, and creeping ground covers. This diverse group includes hundreds of cultivars and varieties, all of them belonging to the Ericaceae (heath) family. This article will focus on the common manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita, with tips for growing many of its cousins as well.

Let’s dig into the best tips for growing gorgeous evergreen manzanitas in your garden.

Overview

A close-up reveals the reddish hue of manzanita branches, adding warmth to the scene. Emerald leaves gracefully adorn the branches, creating a striking contrast against the rustic backdrop, inviting admiration for nature's intricate beauty.
Plant Type Evergreen shrub
Plant Family Ericaceae
Plant Genus Arctostaphylos
Plant Species spp.
Hardiness Zone 8-10
Planting Season Fall to early winter
Plant Maintenance Low
Plant Height 6-25’
Fertility Needs Low
Temperature Prefers 50-90°F (but hardy to 10°F)
Pairs With California sagebrush, deerweed, penstemon, ceanothus
Soil Type Well-drained, dry, rocky, slopes
Plant Spacing 120-144”
Watering Needs Low
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial sun
Lifespan 25-30 years
Pests Manzanita leaf gall, aphid
Diseases Sudden Oak Death

History and Cultivation 

Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.) are a genus of chaparral plants known for their curving dramatic stems and reddish-purple bark. They grow from coastal regions to high mountains, with species that range from stout groundcovers to 20+ foot trees.

The bark peels once per year and holds a stunning contrast against the evergreen foliage. Manzanitas produce fragrant winter flowers shaped like dangling urns. In the summer, they turn into clusters of fruits that look like tiny apples. In Spanish, manzanita means “little apple.”

It’s important to find a manzanita specifically adapted to your climate, as there is a lot of diversity, range, and form within the genus. All of these plants are drought-hardy and prefer full sun. 

What is Common Manzanita?

A close-up showcases the delicate branches of a manzanita plant, adorned with green leaves that contrast beautifully against the branches' intricate patterns. Among the foliage, clusters of soft pink flowers add a subtle touch of elegance to the scene.
Arctostaphylos manzanita is an evergreen chaparral shrub with crooked branches.

Common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) is an evergreen chaparral shrub sometimes called whiteleaf manzanita or big manzanita. It has crooked branches, ovate evergreen leaves, and iconic red peeling bark.

Although it’s often referred to as a tree, the sprawling habit is more shrub-like, only occasionally forming a central trunk. It is native to the coast ranges of California and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where it thrives on dry, exposed slopes along other chaparral plants like sagebrush (Artemisia californica), Ceanothus spp., and coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis). 

Where Does Manzanita Grow?

Numerous manzanita trees, their slender trunks reaching skyward, create a majestic forest scene. The afternoon sun gently bathes their leaves in golden light, casting intricate shadows and illuminating the vibrant hues of nature's palette.
Manzanita plants are native to arid regions of western North America.

Most manzanita plants are native to arid chaparral regions, oak woodlands, and coniferous forests of western North America. They thrive in areas with hot, dry summers and mild, moist winters, from Baja Mexico to California, Oregon, and Washington, and inland to Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

There are more than 100 manzanita species, many of which are native to California. It’s important to choose a species adapted to your region.

Is Manzanita OK for Wildfire Areas?

Manzanita shrubs stand prominently, their smooth, red-brown branches twisting gracefully against the sky. Surrounding them, tufts of grasses sway gently, interwoven with a variety of shrubs, creating a harmonious tapestry of textures and colors in the landscape.
They pose significant fire risks in fire-prone areas like Arizona or California.

Manzanita shrubs are not recommended for firewise landscaping. Due to the high content of volatile oils in manzanita plants, they burn like torches when ignited. They also produce a lot of deadwood that can act as ladder fuel to a wildfire. This is particularly dangerous if the plants are grown near flammable structures like your home.

If you live in a fire-prone region like Arizona or California and you still wish to grow these attractive drought-tolerant plants, isolate the shrubs at least 100 feet from your home and practice regular maintenance by removing the deadwood and clearing the base.

Propagation

Common manzanita can be propagated by seed, but it is much easier to grow from cutting.

Seed

A close-up of sunlit leaves of the manzanita plant, showcasing their rich green hues. Nestled among them are clusters of small, unopened drupe fruits, adding a touch of nature's bounty to the scene.
Scarification and fire exposure improve seed germination.

Seed propagation of manzanita is difficult but rewarding. The seeds naturally germinate after exposure to wildfires. You can harvest the ripe fruits in the summer and soak them in water. This will remove the outer fleshy parts of the berries so you can access the seeds or “nutlets.” The nutlets will float to the top, where you can skim them off by hand or with a fine strainer.

Interestingly, manzanita seeds germinate in the wild after fires. The seed coats of most manzanitas are quite hard, so scarification and fire exposure are both necessary to improve germination. 

Scarification means scarring the seed with a sharp knife. Then, you can sow the seeds in a flat of peat moss and sand about twice as deep as they are wide. Place the flat on the ground, and layer 3-4 inches of pine needles on top of the seeds. Light the pine duff on fire on top of the seedbed, taking care not to burn the flat.

Once the seeds have undergone the treatments, provide moderate moisture and practice patience. It’s easier to let them germinate outside in the garden, as they can take up to a year to sprout. Once sprouted, you can transplant it as needed.

Cutting

Sun-kissed manzanita leaves, vibrant in deep green hues, create a captivating play of light and shadow. In the backdrop, a blurred brown mountain emerges, adding depth and contrast to the verdant foliage, creating a serene natural scene.
Take cuttings in early spring to propagate new plants.

Early spring, from March to May, is the best time to take cuttings from manzanita because the terminal shoots are just emerging with new growth. This is a form of vegetative propagation that essentially clones the original plant by cutting young twigs and encouraging them to grow new roots so they can mature into their own plant. 

To take a manzanita cutting:

  1. Use sharp, sanitized pruners or a knife.
  2. Choose a mature, healthy manzanita with no signs of Sudden Oak Death disease (see below for symptoms).
  3. Cut from newly sprouted terminal (end) green shoots.
  4. Make cuttings 6” long, including 1-2” of the woody stem from last year’s growth.
  5. Dip the cut end in rooting hormone.
  6. Place in a moist mixture of sand and peat moss.
  7. Regularly water for several weeks until a light tug indicates that the cuttings formed roots.
  8. Cuttings can be transplanted into containers or straight into the ground.

Planting

In general, manzanitas do not transplant well because the roots really dislike disturbance. To prevent transplant shock, handle the roots very carefully and transplant shrubs during a semi-dormant state.

It is important that a cutting or sapling has reached a healthy size in its container. Its roots should thoroughly fill out the pot without showing signs of rootbinding (twirling around in tight, matted circles). 

How to Transplant 

In the foreground, a thriving short manzanita shrub with green leaves stands proudly. The lush vegetation forms a picturesque backdrop, showcasing a harmonious mix of various shrubs and trees in their natural environment.
Transplant manzanita starts in late fall or early winter when dormant.

The best time to transplant manzanita starts is in late fall or early winter when the plants are not actively growing. 

To move this shrub into the ground:

  1. Dig a hole about twice as wide and 1.5 times as deep as the root ball.
  2. Loosen the surrounding soil with a pitchfork or shovel.
  3. Grasp the seedling or sapling from its base and gently shimmy the pot away from the roots.
  4. Place the plant in the hole upright, with the soil level at the same place.
  5. Backfill and water thoroughly to help it get established.

Spacing

Short manzanita shrubs, with their distinctive red bark and small leaves, cluster beneath the forest canopy, seeking shade and shelter. Towering trees form a lush backdrop, their verdant foliage reaching skyward.
Manzanitas should be planted with spacing ranging from 5-15 feet.

Common manzanitas are best planted 5-15 feet apart, depending on the variety and desired mature size. For more tree-like specimens, choose wider spacing and prune away young side shoots from the base. 

Other species will vary based on their growth habit. For example, Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ is a groundcover manzanita best planted with about 30” of space between them. Uva ursi (bearberry) plants can be grown just 3-5 feet apart. Check your local native plant nursery or university extension office website for more information about spacing for varieties endemic to your region.

How to Grow

These drought-tolerant evergreens are easy to grow in dry areas with full sun to partial shade. They thrive predominantly in the West and Southwest. They do not do well in cold, humid climates of the East.

Light

A small manzanita plan basks in the warm sunlight. Surrounding it, the ground is adorned with smooth pebbles, adding texture and charm to the natural setting, creating a serene and picturesque scene.
Plant manzanita in an area receiving 6-8 hours of direct sun daily.

Plant manzanita in an area where it can receive 6-8 hours of direct sun per day. While they can tolerate less sun, partially shaded shrubs may grow more branched and stouter with fewer flowers.

Water

A close-up reveals a cluster of delicate pink manzanita flowers adorned with glistening water droplets. The blurred backdrop showcases additional manzanita blooms and lush leaves, creating a picturesque scene of floral abundance and tranquility.
Manzanita plants thrive in arid climates with minimal irrigation.

These arid climate plants are among the best selections for xeriscapes and areas without irrigation. They are extremely drought-tolerant and prefer dry, warm summers.

Only water during establishment. If you plant a species native to your region, they can typically subsist on the natural rainfall alone.

Soil

A close-up reveals the intricate texture of brown sandy loam, showcasing its granular composition and earthy hue. Tiny grains intermingle, creating a rich substrate teeming with potential for nurturing growth and sustaining life within its fertile depths.
They thrive in well-drained, slightly acidic soils like sandy loam.

Well-drained soil is ideal for manzanitas. Sandy to sandy loam and silty loam soil is suitable. They will not grow well in waterlogged heavy clay. Slightly acidic soils are common where this plant grows wild in coniferous forests. Pine needle mulch and peat moss can improve the pH and drainage.

Climate and Temperature

Manzanita trees stand tall beneath a cloudy blue sky, their rugged branches reaching toward the heavens. Sunlight filters through the leaves, casting a gentle glow upon their intricate foliage.
Some varieties of Manzanitas are capable of enduring extreme cold at high altitudes.

Most Arctostaphylos varieties are adapted to mild Mediterranean regions or hot, arid climates. Common manzanita is only hardy in USDA zones 8-10, while greenleaf manzanita (A. patula) can withstand very cold winters at high elevations in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Again, check your variety before planting, as some manzanitas will die at temperatures below 15°F (-9°C).

Fertilizing

A vibrant manzanita plant stands out with its striking red branches and lush green leaves, creating a vivid contrast against its surroundings. It is nestled amidst various other plants, forming a harmonious natural arrangement in the garden landscape.
These twisty shrubs thrive in poor soils and grow wild without needing fertilizer.

No fertilizer is necessary for these unique, twisty shrubs. They thrive in poor soils and grow wild without any help from humans.

Maintenance

A manzanita plant stands out with deep red branches contrasting against light green leaves. It thrives amidst a cluster of small shrubs, its distinctive colors adding a captivating allure to the surrounding greenery in the garden landscape.
Encourage deadwood removal for manzanita plants in wildfire-prone regions.

You can lightly prune your shrub after it blooms, but this is not necessary. In areas prone to wildfire, deadwood removal and cleanup around the base of shrubs is encouraged. 

Varieties

In addition to common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), these species and cultivars make popular landscape plants in their respective regions:

Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ Ground Cover

A close-up reveals the foliage of Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet', showcasing its delicate veins weaving through the lush greenery. The leaves form a captivating frame around the pristine white flowers, creating a harmonious botanical composition.
‘Emerald Carpet’ features shiny green leaves and bright red stems.

If you want a low-growing groundcover, ‘Emerald Carpet’ is a beautiful, verdant green hedge or creeping vine that thrives in drought-prone California landscapes. It has shiny green leaves and bright red stems that grow from 6” to 1 foot tall. 

Bearberry (A. uva-ursi)

A bearberry shrub catches the sunlight, its leaves shimmering with a radiant glow. Amidst the foliage, red berries add a pop of color, enhancing the shrub's natural beauty and allure.
This low-growing species serves as a fire-resistant groundcover in Arizona.

Also known as kinnikinnick or uva ursi, this creeping species maxes out at 6 inches and also makes a nice ground cover. It is great for wildfire-prone landscapes like Arizona because it has a decreased flammability hazard. The uva ursi berries are used medicinally.

Greenleaf Manzanita (A. patula)

A close-up reveals the delicate beauty of Greenleaf manzanita's pink flowers, gracefully dangling amidst green leaves. The juxtaposition of the soft petals against the lush foliage creates a captivating display of nature's intricate details and harmonious colors.
The Greenleaf manzanita is used for erosion control on slopes in western US states.

This mid-sized shrub grows 3-6 feet tall and has bright pink bell-shaped flowers. It is more fire-resistant and sometimes used as erosion control on slopes thanks to the easily rooting stems. It is native from California to Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and north into Montana and Washington.

Pinemat Manzanita (A. nevadensis)

A close-up of Pinemat manzanita leaves showcases their glossy, elliptical shape, each vein intricately etched. Soft pink flowers delicately adorn the foliage, their petals unfurling with a gentle grace.
This ground cover spreads 3-5 feet wide through freely rooting stems.

This low-growing ground cover spreads 3-5 feet wide as its intricately branched stems freely root in the ground. The evergreen foliage creates a beautiful backdrop to pale pink flowers in the early spring. This species is best for moist, higher-elevation climates.

Yellow Leaf Manzanita (A. pringlei)

Intricate Yellow Leaf manzanita branches in close-up, showcasing their delicate structure and vibrant leaves. The branches are adorned with round red berries, adding a pop of color and a festive touch to the overall composition.
The Yellow Leaf manzanita thrives in the Southwest’s dry rocky slopes among chaparral.

Sometimes called the pringle manzanita, this species is from the Southwest, growing specifically on dry, rocky slopes of chaparral alongside pinyon pines and juniper trees. The plants form dense thickets and grow 5 feet or taller.

Design Ideas

Most species of manzanita thrive alongside other highly drought-tolerant chaparral native plants.

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)

A California sagebrush, thriving in a sunlit environment, showcases its resilience amidst the warmth. The shrub emanates a golden hue, adding a touch of brilliance to its surroundings, capturing the essence of the rugged yet beautiful California landscape.
This resilient shrub complements manzanita’s mahogany-red stems and dark glossy leaves.

One of the toughest natives you can grow, this resilient shrub thrives in dry, open areas. The silvery-green frilly tops of sagebrush look beautiful with the mahogany-red stems and dark, glossy leaves of manzanita. 

Deerweed (Acmispon glaber)

A close-up of yellow Deerweed flowers showcases delicate petals. Adjacent to the blooms, tiny green leaves add a subtle contrast, enhancing the overall natural beauty of the scene with their fresh hue and intricate foliage.
A pioneer species, the Deerweed requires no water or maintenance.

Another common comrade of manzanitas in their wild habitat, deerweed produces intriguing stalks of yellow pea-shaped flowers. This plant is a pioneer species that is often the first to return after wildfires. It doesn’t need any water or maintenance.

Penstemon (Penstemon spp.)

Tall stems of penstemon plants reach skyward, adorned with leaves and delicate pink flowers. In the backdrop, lush trees create a verdant tapestry, providing a serene setting for the flourishing penstemons.
Perennial wild penstemons boast purple flowers attracting hummingbirds.

Wild penstemons are perennial herbs native to Central, Southern, and Baja California, particularly in the high desert and chaparral regions. They produce lovely purple flowers that hummingbirds adore

Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.)

A close-up captures the beauty of Ceanothus flowers, showcasing clusters adorned with delicate, tiny purple blooms. The glossy leaves surrounding the blooms thrive in harmony, creating a picturesque scene of natural beauty and vibrant color contrast.
These thrive in drought and fire-prone chaparral landscapes alongside manzanita.

The fluffy clusters of ceanothus flowers are incredibly fragrant and striking alongside manzanita plantings. In spite of their charming appearance, these shrubs are drought-tolerant and fire-resistant, tolerating the same conditions as other hardy chaparral plants listed above. 

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

Tall ponderosa pines stand proudly, their feathery leaves catching the sunlight. Against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, the pines create a serene and majestic scene in the wilderness.
Plant manzanita within 15-30 feet of ponderosas for a native forest garden.

If you want to grow a native forest garden or find a good complement for pine groves near the edge of your forest, plant manzanita within 15-30 feet of ponderosas. This mixed culture is especially common in wild parts of the central Sierra Nevada range.

Pests and Diseases

Manzanitas are incredibly rugged and only rarely face these problems.

Manzanita Leaf Gall Aphid

Green leaves on branches of a manzanita plant. Intriguingly, the leaves bear evidence of nature's intricate balance, as they form distinctive red, pod-shaped galls induced by the presence of tiny aphids.
This gray-green aphid causes manzanita leaves to form swollen, pod-shaped galls.

If you notice manzanita leaves swollen into pod-shaped galls, it is likely due to this gray-green aphid. The aphids feed on new growth and cause the leaves to thicken around the wounds, forming bright red swollen galls that turn brown as they age.

To treat it, avoid over-irrigating or pruning the plants. Do not fertilize manzanitas, especially with high-nitrogen fertilizer, as this can attract the aphids to the nutrient-rich sap. Horticultural oil or neem can be used to kill clustered infestations.

Sudden Oak Death

A close-up reveals the intricate textures of a dead oak tree's trunk, showcasing weathered bark and intricate patterns. In the background, a gentle blur reveals the towering presence of other majestic trees in the forest.
This deadly disease is caused by Phytophtora ramorum.

The pathogen Phytophthora ramorum causes a deadly disease that kills some oak trees, including coast live oak and tanoak. The pathogen occasionally colonizes common manzanita in parts of northern California. Symptoms include dark spots on the leaves, sometimes lined by a black border. Entire branches may brown, wilt, and die back. 

The disease spreads by rain splash and human transport of infected plants. Always examine a manzanita shrub before planting or propagating. There is no cure, but some fungicides can suppress the disease. It is important to carefully remove infected parts and burn them to prevent the spread.

Plant Uses

A close-up of a Manzanita shrub illuminated by sunlight, showcasing its natural beauty. Its lush foliage boasts ovate green leaves, complemented by the striking presence of yellow and red fruits, adding a colorful flourish to the landscape.
Manzanita bears edible fruits utilized in various culinary and medicinal applications.

Manzanita is primarily a wild native shrub with use as a drought-tolerant landscape specimen. The fruits are edible and considered a local superfood in some places. The ripe red berries can be eaten raw, made into jam, brewed into cider, or added to smoothies.

Native Americans used manzanita leaves and berries for medicinal purposes. Interestingly, the soaked leaves are known to make a great poultice (top dressing) for skin with a poison oak rash.

Final Thoughts

Arctostaphylos is an amazingly diverse and resilient genus of shrubs, most with the iconic red peeling bark and curvy, twisting branches. Manzanitas grow best in areas with dry, hot summers and sandy, well-drained soils.

The plants have sensitive roots, so be very careful when transplanting. Be sure to select a species native to your region and avoid planting manzanita near your home if you live in a wildfire-prone area.

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