Manzanita is the common name for the genus Arctostaphylos. Manzanita is Spanish for "tiny apple" and was named by the early Spanish Californians for its small apple-like fruit. The scientific name Arctostaphylos is Greek for"bear berries" and indeed the bears are quite fond of the fruits. Manzanita is a member of the Heath family (Ericaceae) and is a very characteristic component of the Californian flora. There are approximately 60 species most of which occur in California, although a few range widely outside of this region. The habit can range from prostrate mat-forming shrubs to small trees with gracefully curved and smooth reddish to purplish branches, sometimes with shreddy bark. The leaves are simple, alternate, and evergreen. The flowers appear in late winter or early spring and are small urn-shaped pinkish to whitish flowers (4 to 5 parted) with usually ten sometimes eight stamens. This sclerophyllous taxa (plants with hard and stiff leaves) is drought resistant and some manzanitas have burl wood at their bases giving them the ability to crown sprout after a fire.
The berries are used for food by many animals and their sturdy shrub habit provides excellent shelter. The berries were also used by many California Indians and the early Spanish settlers. The Miwoks made a cider from the berries as did the Spanish who also made a jelly. Other uses of manazanita include grinding the seeds into flour, and steeping the highly astringent leaves to use as a diuretic in kidney diseases and infections of the urinary tract, and for skin irritations. The wood has been utilized for utensils, pipes, and in the nineteen century it was very popular for travelers from the east to returned home with a manzanita cane.
Although many of the species are common, many are rare species so knowledge of the common species is essential before harvesting (see Sawyers key). Some of our common species here on the north coast are A. columbiana with long hairs on the branchlets hence the name hairy manzanita and the beautiful groundcover A. uva-ursi, common bearberry.
The following recipes are from Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte B. Clarke. Although moderation should be used when consuming manzanita berries as they have been reported to be constipating.
sugar or honeywater
Cover berries with water in a sauce pan, simmer 15 minutes until soft,gently bruise berries (do not crush). Let stand overnight. Decant liquid let sediment settle and decant again, sweeten as desired
1/2 gallon Manzanita berries
1/2 sliced lemmon peel
1 cinnamon stick
4 cups sugar
Cover berries with water and crush add lemon peel and cinnamon stick andsimmer for 15 minutes. Place in cheese cloth and strain. Bring juice back to boil and for each 5 cups of liquid add 4 cups sugar and boil rapidly until the liquid sheets rather than drops off spoon. Pour into sterilized jars and seal (can add drop of green dye to brighten up jelly). Makes fivecups.