Manzanitas are really the iconic plant of California. There are over 50 different species of manzanita native to California, with less than 5 species occurring anywhere else in the world. The twisting turning red branches remind me of the forest fires that have been a natural part of our ecosystem for millennia. One of the reasons I affectionately call this plant “Fire Bush.” In fact, manzanita is so adapted to fire, that their seeds actually require fire in order to germinate. This ensures that the seeds will remain dormant in the soil until the fire can clear out enough space for them to have access to nutrients and sunlight, and will have the greatest chance of success in life.
Identifying manzanita is very easy. There are not many plants you can confuse for this one. Manzanita has round or slightly pointed light green leaves about the size of a quarter or fifty-cent piece. The wood is bright red and grows in unique twisting movements and during the heat of summer, the bark starts to peel and reveal the older layers of wood underneath. Sometimes the branches are growing from a large burl at the base of the plant. Manzanita is such a wonderful plant friend, nearly every part of this plant is useful. The leaves can be used for poison oak remedies, the bark can be smoked or used for tea, flowers and berries are edible and delicious. When the plant starts to flower, you can really see its resemblance to it’s cousin the blueberry. The flowers are small pink or white urn-shaped bells and they smell like sweet thick honey. Early in the season, I like to munch on the flowers for a little sweetness as I’m searching for other goodies. Sometimes I will put the fresh flowers into my water bottle for a bit of flavoring.
As the season progresses, the flowers become small red berries that look like little apples (in fact, manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish). The flavor of the berries can vary depending on the specific species of manzanita they come from. I have found that once the berries have dried out substantially, their sugars are more concentrated and they start to taste much sweeter.
When the berries are young and green, but are starting to turn red, they are at the perfect stage for making a cider drink. The taste of this drink has been compared to a cross between lemonade and apple cider. To make the cider, simply pick a bunch of berries and crush them up a bit. Put them in a pot of boiling water and let them steep for 10 minutes or so. Remove the berries and enjoy your drink. Alternatively, you can steep them in cold water overnight. The greener the berries, the more sour the drink will taste. For a sweeter drink, pick more of the red berries. You will have to experiment to figure out what your preferred flavor is.
When the berries have turned completely red, they are at their ripest and sweetest stage. This is when they really look like little apples. You can eat the berries raw, but be careful not to break your teeth on the hard seeds in the middle. At this stage I like to let them dry out right on the bush. This will make them easy to gather and easy to process once I get them home.
When the berries are dried out, they will fall from the bush almost immediately as you brush up against them. Make sure you have a bag opened underneath so you catch all the dropping berries! You will want to collect the berries once they are dried, but if they start to look shriveled up, they might become too hard to eat. Some manzanitas get really tall, so I usually leave the higher up berries for the birds and other critters. The forest critters will eat the berries and plant them all around the landscape ensuring the manzanita populations continue to grow.
With the dried berries, my favorite preparation is to crush them up with my stone grinder. The inner flesh will powderize very easily once it has dried out. Then I pass the material through a sieve and separate the seeds and skins from the dried powdered berry flesh. This powder is a great sweetener to add to oatmeal or cookies and other baked goods. You can also add this powder into a water bottle for a sweet apple flavored drink. The powder will settle to the bottom of the water, so an occasional shake is necessary to keep it mixed up well.