Manzanitas are survivors! These shrubs, which can be tree-sized, can live up to 100 years and grow in rocky, low-nutrient soils in areas with temperature extremes. Wildfire only encourages them - they are well-adapted to drought conditions and have built-in defenses against insects.
Manzanita gets its name from the berries that grow in summer and ripen in fall. Manzana is Spanish for apple, and indeed, the fruits look like tiny apples. The berries are a major fall food source for wildlife such as black bears, deer, coyotes, foxes, and racoons. Native peoples have long appreciated the berries given by this plant. A popular drink is a cider made from mashed berries. The rock-hard seeds inside the berries are most likely to germinate after a wildfire (this is called heat scarification). Luckily, being eaten and pooped out works well too!
The smooth red bark of the manzanita probably helps prevent water loss in hot summer conditions. We have noticed that sun-exposed branches often turn black or gray on top as the living tissue of the tree dies in the most exposed areas. Perhaps this provides additional heat-shielding to the underside of the limbs, which continue to live and transport sugars from leaves throughout the plant, and nutrients and water from roots to the rest of the plant.
The red bark peels and sheds regularly. This may be a vestigial adaptation to rid the tree of insects that can cause damage.
Have you been to Redwood Valley in Mendocino County’s beautiful interior? You won’t find redwood trees there, but you will find plenty of manzanitas and madrones! That's where these photos were taken.