Getting to Know a Familiar Face: Manzanitas of North America

Today I am joined by Michael Kauffmann co-author of the new Field Guide to the Manzanitas of California, North America and Mexico, published this year by Backcountry Press. Michael last joined me in 2012 after the publication of his first book, Conifer Country. PHOTO: A Butte County manzanita in early spring bloom.

Studying conifers – their diversity in Northern California and the “compelling story” they tell about the world around us, past and present, was in fact part of what brought manzanitas to Michael’s attention. “When I first moved to California in the late 1990s, I knew we had manzanitas, but they were all just generic manzanita. As I studied and got to know the conifers, I began to realize that there were often manzanitas associated with them, and they were often very different.” PHOTO: A. canescens. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bisbee. © 2015

So 3 years later comes the publication of “Field Guide to Manzanitas – California, North American, and Mexico”. His co-authors on the book (and the adventure of finding, studying, and photographing) are Tom Parker and Michael Vasey, the book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Jeff Bisbee. As Dan Gluesenkamp, Executive Director of the California Native Plant Society notes in his testimonial on the back cover: “This book is more than just a field guide to manzanitas, it is a tour of California and an exploration of the diversity that makes this land wondrous and special.”PHOTO: Cover of Field Guide to Manzanitas. Photo courtesy of Backcountry Press. © 2015

And I personally found this to not be an exaggeration. While I have not yet had reason to read every entry on every manzanita from Baja to British Columbia in the book, I was fascinated by the opening and introductory chapters, which walk you through the epic story these plants tell us about soil, climate, and time particularly in California and the California Floristic Province. PHOTO: A. viscida. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bisbee. © 2015

As a gardener and native plant enthusiast, the natural history and ecology of the manzanitas described in the book were illuminating and made me ever more fond of the handful of manzanitas I tend in the garden. It also made me want to be much more attentive to those I see on the trail. PHOTO: A. densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ in bloom in Redding’s McConnell Arboretum & Garden.

Manzanita (which means little apple – referring to the plants’ seeds) are members of the genus Arctostaphylos – a large group of flowering plants in the Ericacea family. Relatives in the family include madrone, blueberries and rhododendron.

The manzanitas have a long lineage, dating back in fossil records to 15 mya, plus. As a group, the majority of the species are centered in the California Floristic Province and they are particularly rich in California chaparral environments. As such, manzanita are well adapted to our Mediterranean climate of (sometimes) wet winters and long periods of drought, to poor soils and to fire – meaning they can survive fire both my re-sprouting after a fire from their underground structures, OR as a result of their seed bank in the surrounding soil germinating after the fire (a chemical in smoke helps many species’ seeds to break dormancy). Michael confirmed for me that while manzanita DO burn hot in a wildfire event, if they are tended in a garden setting (meaning: given little but regular water and kept tidy and pruned of dead and/or ladder material), they are not any greater fire hazard than other garden plants.

As well, manzanita have co-evolved with our native wildlife for both pollination and seed dispersal so they attract and support our native birds, insects and mammals. For me, one of the fun things to become aware of as I read, was that the diversification of manzanitas across this region has resulted in a great many local endemics – meaning specific species are often only found in very specific locations. Thus, one of the keys to identifying which manzanita you are enjoying is knowing where you are. I liked the life lesson in this key to ID’ing these plants.

And the gardening lesson as well: Know where you are – plant accordingly. Manzanitas fit right in – beautifully.

Kauffmann is husband to environmental educator, Allison; father; long-time teacher himself of environmental education, math and science; naturalist and self-described “freedom-loving environmentalist who enjoys unconfined primeval recreation.” Kauffmann is a resident of Humboldt County and in 2012 began Backcountry Press, an independent publisher whose themes explore natural history, ecology and the western landscape. Kauffmann was born and raised in Virginia where he formed his love of the outdoors. As a young adult he moved to the southwest, where his weekends were spent exploring wilderness areas, and his fascination with ancient coniferous species solidified. He explains that “the definitive purpose [of getting out in the wilderness] was to walk, get lost and miserable, go crazy in peace, and live to tell about the amazing experiences. Through these journeys I found joy and also an understanding: learning where I stood and what stood around me. The keen sense of place I began to develop in the course of these adventures deepened my budding interest in natural history and jump-started my career as a naturalist.” Photo: Michael Kauffmann. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

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Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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