Paula Panich

Mountain Stories: Ethno-agronomy? It Was Practiced Here

The humble and beautiful Agave deserti. Desert gardeners may await its bloom with anticipation at this time of year, but the Native Peoples of the deserts of Mexico and California depended on it for its delicious roasted “heart,” its tasty flowers, and for its seed, ground into flour.

In return, traditional people practiced what anthropologists have come to call ethno-agronomy; the management of wild-plant populations. At least this is how Deborah Dozier, in a small booklet, Stalking the Wild Agave: A Food and Fiber Tradition, published by the Malki Museum Press of Banning, Calif., describes it. I tried to look it up, ethno-agronomy. I came across the words “cognized models” and ran the other way. To read these scientific papers and interpret them — well, not today.

But Gary Paul Nabhan, the Southwestern desert’s best known botanist, writes in Gathering the Desert that the peoples of the Southern California deserts cultivated agave, planting the “pups” known to all gardeners, over acres and acres.

The idea of tending a population of plants in the wild is thrilling. A lot better than seeing, by the side of the Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail up in here in Idyllwild, a fat oval of over-bred, brazen-yellow daffodils. Someone carried the bulbs up to the trail a few years ago, and in a misguided burst of beautification-of-the-forest zeal, planted them.

The tiny and wonderful Malki Museum began in 1964, the first of the Native American museums in California to be founded by Native American people, Jane Penn, and the late (2012) Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, who was an anthropologist of her people.  Last weekend, on April 13, the annual agave roast was held. (Alas, I missed it, but I won’t next year.)

From the Museum’s website:

The Agave Harvest and Roast is an annual event sponsored by the Malki Museum. It is held on two consecutive Saturdays in mid- to late-April, when the Agave plants were traditionally gathered. The agave or amul was a basic food staple for the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians of Southern California.

The harvested agave is brought back to the Malki Museum for the Agave Roast, held the following Saturday. The agave hearts are cooked in a traditional roasting pit and served with other customary Native foods.

What I did not expect at the Malki Museum was its ethnobotanical garden, Temalpakh, a “living illustration” of the book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Dr. Siva Saubel and Lowell Bean. (This essential book, and the booklet mentioned above, which describes in detail methods of agave gathering and roasting, can be ordered from the Museum’s site,

Temalpakh means “of the earth”; the garden is beautifully tended and maintained by a grandson of Katherine Siva Saubel.

Here’s what the San Jacinto Mountains look like from that garden outside the Malki Museum:

Deborah Dozier’s booklet opens with a quote from an informant of Keith Basso, an anthropologist, who, as far as I’m concerned, walks on water. The following is, according to Dozier, quoting Basso, an excerpt from instructions by a Western Apache headman to his kin as they are about to leave before dawn to gather food.

You women who go out to gather acorns and walnuts, don’t go alone. Go in a party of three or four. Look after each other. If you get a mescal (agave) head ready to cut off, don’t stand on the lower side of it; always work on the upper side. If you stand below when you cut, it will roll on you, and its sharp points will stick into you. If you cut it off and are about to chop away the leaves from the head, don’t open your eyes wide. Close them half-way so the juice won’t get in them and blind you.

*     *    *

This is the ninth in the series, Mountain Stories, copyright Paula Panich, 2013. Photos by Paula Panich.

Mountain Stories: So the Sun Rises in the West Up Here?

We’re on mountain time up here. But we are also so off the grid, and maybe also off the map. People who live in Los Angeles give you a blank look if you say you are going to the San Jacinto Mountains, or to Idyllwild. I just say “the mountains above Palm Springs” and then they seem to have a slot into their minds to slip in the words.

So where are we anyway? Two and a half hours from L.A. That’s the perennial scale of travel in Southern California. Never mind where or distance, just how long.

But there’s not an easy answer as to where. And even once you are here, there’s no easy way to orient yourself. The sun seems to come up in the wrong place. And even if you have lived here for thirty-five years, as Bruce Edward Watts has, it’s possible  you might become momentarily disoriented.

For most of the seven years I have been coming to these San Jacinto Mountains I have stayed in the same part of Idyllwild, Calif., which is called Fern Valley. Fern Valley (a bit more than 6,000′ in elevation) is the blunt end of Strawberry Valley, and above the center of town. Strawberry Valley is the bottom of a bowl, says Bruce Watts, and is formed by three ridges. “We’re a miniature Yosemite,” he says, “in that we are surrounded by mountain peaks.” But which ones? I took this photo from a high point in Fern Valley; I’m always just guessing at what I’m seeing, except for the stunning beauty.

But why oh why does the sun in Fern Valley look like it rises in the west and not the east? It takes it a good while to lift itself up (if you’ll forgive me for thinking this way) over South Ridge, that’s why. In the meantime, it, the sun, is shooting light over to Marion Ridge, which is really to the north, and the light pours into Fern Valley as if tipped from a pitcher. Pouring in — from the north. (And of course it’s not rising from due east anyway since we are in the Northern Hemisphere. And since California curves along the Pacific west is not exactly west and . . .)

But if you look at my previous post, there is a panoramic shot of what we see from this end of the Valley, snapped by Bruce Watts, and you can move the photo laterally to see, from the left: Marion Mountain, Tahquitz Rock, Tahquitz Peak, and South Ridge.

And herein lies other complications for the mountain newcomer: language. Place names. In the San Jacinto Mountains and below in the Palm Springs desert is Tahquitz Peak, Rock, and Canyon. Also Lodge, Meadows, Mining District, Pines, and Valley. San Jacinto is a town, Forest Reserve, Federal Wilderness, Peak, Valley, Tunnel, Rancho, Fault, and box factory. Also a State Park and a State Wilderness. They aren’t next door to each other, I can assure you. By the way, from the valley we can’t see Mount San Jacinto, at 10,804 feet, unless you make the trek to the high country. It’s the second-highest mountain in Southern California.

The San Jacinto Wilderness is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. San Bernardino (town) is well west of here, but at close to sea level, on the desert.  The San Bernardino Mountains are across Interstate 10 from the San Jacinto Mountains. The I-10 here sits on top of the San Andreas Fault. There’s the San Jacinto Fault too, but it is at the bottom (mostly) of the south side of the Hill, as it is called up here, around the towns of Hemet and San Jacinto.

So how does even a seasoned mountain man have a moment of directional doubt? “There are no straight roads up here,” says Bruce,”no nice perpendicular lines going in one direction. Your direction changes at every turn. North-ish and then meandering. Riverside County sheriff’s deputies come up here from Hemet and get lost every time.” Bruce recently turned right as headed north on Highway 243 onto Jameson Road to visit a friend. As he wound his way up and stopped, he saw some lights and was expecting to see the village of Pine Cove — he thought he was looking north, but was actually looking south, to Idyllwild.

“We’re in a time and space warp up here,” Bruce says, laughing at himself.

As for me, I’m still wrestling with that puzzling sunrise.

* * *

This is the eighth in a series called Mountain Stories. Text and copyright, Paula Panich, 2013. If you would like to use any part of it for non-commercial purposes, please see the Creative Commons section on the opening page of







Mountain Stories: John Fowles and THE TREE

John Fowles, the great English novelist, published, in 1979, a complicated essay called “The Tree.” It was reissued in 2010, in this country anyway, with an introduction by Barry Lopez. I will refer to it as The Tree, as it is a pretty little book.

If you don’t recall the novels of John Fowles, you will surely recall the movie made from one of them—“The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

The essay that forms this book is the kind that few readers tackle anymore: It is discursive, multi-layered, redolent with subtext, and the language exquisite.

The pretext of the Fowles essay is a contrasting of the kinds of trees favored by the author’s father, and those of the author himself. The father cosseted, debranched, pruned, forced, crammed in, espaliered and otherwise controlled his fruit trees, and produced wonderful fruit.  The grown son favored an  “ . . . unkempt, unmanaged, and unmanageable garden.” And it follows naturally that the son contrasts his own life with that of the father.  “What he abhorred, I adored, “ writes the grown man.

That’s the nut of it, and one might stop here.

But that would be a mistake.

There’s the subtext, the kernel, of this astonishing work, and the reader swims in its salty translucence according to her (or his) awareness of life. I think we are like fish. How would a fish begin to describe the sea? You can begin to see the challenge.

Before we know it, halfway through this essay we are paddling in a vast sea ourselves of science, art, and the natural world. The ending of the essay is a virtuoso set piece about visiting a storied, ancient wood. Fowles makes the point, early on:

Telling people why, how and when they ought to feel this or that—whether it be with regard to the enjoyment of nature, of food, of sex, or anything else—may, undoubtedly sometimes does, have a useful function in dispelling various kinds of socially harmful ignorance. But what this instruction cannot give is this deepest benefit of any art, be it of making, or of knowing, or of experiencing: which is self expression and self discovery.

I realize I am guilty of this just by framing my own thoughts about this book.

But I can tell you I’ve spent good bits of time in the woods in the last seven years and thought I’d write a book about it. I took a huge sheet of paper and wrote the chapter headings. Notes and research piled up. I gave the book a title: First There Was a Mountain. The title, written on a three-by-five card, was pinned to the window wall above my desk, in a tiny cabin on a mountain surrounded by woods bounded by a musical creek.  Dust gathered on that card.  Meanwhile, I walked in those woods, drank in those woods, inhaled those woods.

Not everything can be expressed.  It’s a big mistake, Fowles tells us, to think it can. Amen.


The is the seventh in the series Mountain Stories. This essay was originally published earlier this month in Eden, the quarterly journal of the California Garden and Landscape History Society,


Mountain Stories: Strawberries Missing in Strawberry Valley?


Here I am in what is known as Strawberry Valley in the San Jacinto Mountains, and the only strawberries I can find are boxed in plastic at the Mountain Harvest Market.  Forest food flora abound here. But most people don’t know about these plants, or even what to do with them if they did.

The Native Peoples of the San Jacinto Mountains are the Cahuilla. Almost a century ago anthropologists divided the Cahuilla into three groups for their (the anthropologists’) convenience into the Western or Pass Cahuilla, the Desert Cahuilla, and the Mountain Cahuilla.

The Western Cahuilla long ago came up to our valley, it is supposed, to hunt and to gather food in the warm seasons.

Pictographs are found here, but the strawberries that once grew along its creeks are long gone. Or I think they are; I’ve never seen any. They were likely gobbled by the first of the white settlers up here who felled the mountain forest (a phrase of historian John W. Robinson) for timber from about 1875 until the turn of the Twentieth Century. Gobbled up or more likely disappeared as its habitat was destroyed or at least altered during the time this valley was a giant sawmill.

(But forty-eight hours after I posted this piece, Bruce Edward Watts, an Idyllwild resident of 34 years, corrected me: He has seen the wild strawberry. Blooming last year, in June, in Idyllwild, along Strawberry Creek. Right by the big bridge, in town. “They were growing up and down the creek, on both sides,” he says.)

For seven years now I’ve been dipping into a book called Temalpakh, Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants (Malki Museum Press, 1972) by Lowell John Bean and Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, an anthropologist and authority on the traditions and culture of her people, and who has just recently died. Temalpakh is translated from the language of the Cahuilla as “from the earth.” Here’s the entry for Fragaria:

Fragaria californica Cham, & Schlect. (Rosaceae)

Common Name: Wild Strawberry Cahuilla Name: piklyam


The fruit of the wild strawberry has always been and still is a choice delicacy among the Cahuilla. Common to the southern California mountains in shaded, damp areas, the plant bears fruit that is available for gathering from April to June. The plant has been pointed out to the authors in the Anza area and near Warner’s Ranch. The fruit was always eaten fresh.

Warner’s Ranch is in Warner’s Springs, close to here. The book was first published 31 years ago. I wonder if wild strawberries are still found among its creeks and streams.

The Heart is Fire: The World of the Cahuilla Indians of southern California by Deborah Dozier (Heyday Books, 1998) is a recording of an oral history, of sorts. A number of Cahuilla speak about their culture and beliefs. It is a very moving book.

Katherine Saubel speaking:

I remember we were told as youngsters that you never destroy plants around you, or trees around you, or rocks around you. They are alive. That is where you get your energy, from all those things around you. So you don’t destroy all these things. That is what we were told. Now, when I see the non-Indians destroying everything around here, they are destroying all of us.

(Photo credit:

This is the sixth in the series, Mountain Stories



Mountain Stories: ‘Crazy-Person Gardener’

Pesky problems in your garden?  Winter too harsh or too dry? A few snails? Maybe some powdery mildew?  Howard Weiss will trade his problems for yours.

Mr. Weiss gardens on a third of an acre at about 6,000 feet in Idyllwild, California. He has never gardened in any other conditions.  (He doesn’t know that some of us can throw a plant out the window only to find it growing up the rainspout.)


His bêtes noirs:

  1. Bad, bad soil. Like decomposed granite. Not like it — it is DG.
  2. Ground squirrels. They’re tunnelers. They love root systems. They number in the zillions.
  3. Rabbits. You know what they do.
  4. Mule deer.  They browse and eat.
  5. Regular old squirrels. They eat and dig.
  6. White-headed woodpeckers. Pecking not only his house but also his beloved mountain ash.
  7. Western bark beetle. Killed at least 50 of his giant trees. Once removed, garden exposed to light. Plants died.
  8. Lousy general conditions. He can see thriving greenery 200 feet away in another garden; the same plants die in his.

He has been at war here in his San Jacinto Mountain garden for a quarter of a century. Why does he do it?

Mr. Weiss first saw these enchanting mountains when he was in high school in Los Angeles. His friend the actor Lonnie Thomas was staying in an aunt’s house, who lived in the Garner Valley where the San Jacinto Mountains open up to a gentle valley and the road ends up in Palm Desert. Mr. Weiss visited his friend there.

These mountains worked on him as they do on many city dwellers.  A dozen years after his graduation from Hamilton High, he was walking in Idyllwild’s Fern Valley with another friend, who pointed at a house and said: I think that will be yours.

She was right.  Mr. Weiss has owned the house for 37 years.  But in those days, the heady mid-Seventies, he was a hardworking acoustic designer and sound engineer in Hollywood.

On his first job, the sound equipment burned. He had to fix it.

So he had plenty of training in facing disaster, and then starting over. He would need it in this garden in the mountains.

The Idyllwild house, adjacent to two creeks, was just a summer cottage then. He was working like a madman in Hollywood during the week, and driving in Friday traffic to Idyllwild to work away the weekend on the house in Fern Valley. The house was very, very cold. And, almost as bad, it was stained green. Weekend after weekend, it was: insulate, then nail up new boards. He did this for years.

In Hollywood, he worked with the Beatles, and with the Rolling Stones. (The complete list is, I’m sure, staggering.) He worked sometimes 30 hours straight.  In Idyllwild, he bought 16-foot boards, stuck them in his vehicle and as he turned a corner as they shifted, hit a tree, and broke in half.  It was an interesting life. And he still couldn’t keep warm in the house. (Finally, there was a free-standing wood stove.)

Then, 25 years ago, he met a gardener on a hike. When he saw her garden, he was hooked.

Her stunning, rich and full garden (as he describes it) was in the San Bernardino Mountains.  (The I-10 Freeway and the San Andreas Fault separate the two ranges.) Why couldn’t he make one too? Yes, he lived in a dark forest, but never mind. He would do it; how hard could it be to bring such beautiful color to his yard?

In came truckloads of soil amendments. Up from Hemet came rocks to build beds. Down into the ground went an irrigation system. “And it was hard, hard to dig,” says Mr. Weiss. “There is a web of roots throughout my property. Even with a pointed shovel . . . it is hard to dig.”

The garden was planted. The garden was eaten. Planted. Eaten. Planted. Failed. Then came the oak barrels. Mr. Weiss became, in part, an inadvertent bonsai practitioner. Cages and oak barrels: that’s how he fought back. (“I hate having the plants in jail,” he says.)

Then, between 2000 and 2002, the scourge of the Western bark beetle . The forest here have lost more than a million giant trees; 50 of them were around the house and garden of Mr. Weiss.  Pines, firs, and what’s called incense cedar (it’s really a cypress). They ranged from 90 to 140 feet tall. Then, as you might guess, came sun.

A few beloved plants did survive this environmental shock: mahonia, rose of Sharon, one delphinium, some ground cover, and Mr. Weiss’s two beloved rhododendrons (though their oak barrels were moved under remaining trees).

“I am a crazy-person gardener,” Mr. Weiss says. “Every time I invest in something, I think, ‘You are throwing away this money.’ But I do it anyway.”

He is nurturing, in addition to the survivors;  forsythia, a brand new Japanese maple, ‘Red Dragon,’ a tender sapling, a dwarf redbud; a cotinus, a flowering pear tree, a flowering plum, his mountain ash (its trunk wrapped in black plastic to repel those killer woodpeckers), the dependable rhodies, and, finally, daffodils (“everyone seems to leave them alone”).

What keeps him going in the garden? “I just feel that I must find things that will work.  Spring comes, and I feel this yearning. I just must do it; it’s something I have to do. Color is so important to me. The forest, views and vistas are beautiful, but I love color,” Mr. Weiss says.

“You are never-give-up Howard,” his visitor says, eyeing that delicate Japanese maple and tender redbud.

His biggest regret as a gardener? Not keeping a journal of what has happened year-to-year.

“I often think I should say goodbye to it all,” he says. “But then spring comes and I have to try. I see color, and I say: ‘O.K., one more time.’”

Mountain Stories: The Pacific Crest Trail

The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has been in the news lately. It’s the trail Cheryl Strayed took for her transforming months-long journey recounted in her best-selling memoir Wild.

But here in Idyllwild, California the thru-hikers, as they’re called (and spelled), have a special place in this mile-high town. This is the very time of year the WELCOME PCT HIKERS banners are up. The hikers dip down from the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains for a stop to refuel, restock, and perhaps sleep in a bed at the Idyllwild or Fern Valley Inns.

I saw my first hiker striding down Fern Valley Road on Sunday. A tall, well-muscled man carrying a big pack, a staff, and things piled on that pack —  you would never take him for a day hiker. He’s an early arrival;  hikers usually arrive at the end of April.

Dressed in all black. Knickers, and so forth. His posture was perfect. I thought: Barring a mishap, this one will make it.

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail begins in Mexico and ends in Canada, and snakes through three western states. Strapping young men explored the route in the 1930s,  and it was designated by Congress as one of the first scenic trails in the country, in 1968.

Thanks to the PCT hikers, Idyllwild has a first-class hiking and outdoors shop, Nomad Ventures. Hikers have been on the trail long enough to know what’s failing — boots, or socks or jacket, perhaps.

Here’s how these men and women get here (I’m cribbing from its “Official Map and Guide”): The PCT begins on a low hill near Campo (2,600′), a small town in California near the Mexican border, It passes through Lake Morena County Park beneath Interstate 8, then climbs through chaparral, scrub oaks, and pines to the the rim of the Laguna Mountains. The trail dips into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park . . . then winds up, down and around the San Felipe Hills and lesser mountains of the Cleveland National Forest before crossing Highway 74 at 4,900′ (N.B. I’ve seen this sign in the Garner Valley east and down the hill from Idyllwild) and climbing the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Here it gets very interesting. The trail climbs up to 9,030 feet, and that’s when many hikers begin their descent into Strawberry Valley and Idyllwild. (You can look this all up.) Otherwise, the hikers trudge from this highest point on this section of the hike to the lowest, crossing beneath the dismal Interstate 10 at the San Gorgonio Pass, passing all those white windmills.

We are always happy to see them here, especially merchants and innkeepers, I suppose, but there is something about this dipping-into-our-valley that gladdens the heart. All that effort. All that backbreaking and spirit-challenging effort.

Always a chance of snow up into these mountains, even into May, possibly putting the PCT hikers are in harm’s way. In May 2005, an experienced PCT hiker went missing in our mountains. It is surmised that in a white-out he kept moving, saw the lights of the desert, and hiked into Tahquitz Canyon, and was unable to get out.

That was what was surmised later, anyway, when two young people on a convention in Palm Springs took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of the mountain, and hiked until they were lost. They blundered into the same no-exit canyon. But they found a backpack in an abandoned campsite. I think a wool sweater and wool socks were involved. But there were also matches. After three nights on the mountain, they were able to signal their location through smoke, and were rescued.

What about John Donovan, 60, the rescuers asked, the hiker missing from the previous year? There was no trace of him. But it was his backpack that saved the two, almost to the day he abandoned the camp. There was a diary.

A search party was unable to find him. In 2007, one of Donovan’s friends tried to find his remains — and did.

A couple of years ago, I met a through-hiker on the Devil’s Slide Trail (it’s an awful name, I know). I was coming down and he was headed up to rejoin the PCT. Hikers have handles, trail nicknames, and I am sorry  not to remember his. He was a man my own age and we had a long chat. Near the end he mentioned that his wife had just left him, and he burst into tears. So did I.

He was a lovely man.




Mountain Stories: Magical Manzanita

Among the plants rooted in California is the genus Arctostaphylos, made up of evergreen shrubs commonly known by the Spanish folk name of manzanita or “little apple” for the small, round nutritious fruit beloved of bears, coyotes, foxes, quail, and other animals, including human beings. Californian native peoples made a refreshing seasonal cider from the berries, and manzanita jelly is cooked up to this day.

California is manzanita central. All but three of the ninety species found in the wild are endemic to California; a few species are found north into Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, east to the Rocky Mountains, in the non-desert parts of Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, and south into Central America. Western gardeners (but not low-desert-dwellers) have a wide choice of garden-worthy forms to choose from, many of them naturally occurring variants, or “intraspecies taxa,” as one taxonomist prefers.

One of those California species, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, has a “cool-temperate physiology” (in the words of manzanita specialist Philip V. Wells) and is circumboreal—that is, found around the world at northern latitudes, including Alaska, Colorado, Canada, the Great Lakes, Russia, and Siberia. In California, the species is found along the Big Sur coast and north to Del Norte County. It has also been found at the summits of two Guatemalan volcanoes. It is known in the West by the common name of bearberry and by its Native American name of kinnikinnick.

Linnaeus named bearberry, in 1753, as Arbutus uva-ursi; the Latin species name meant bearberry. In 1763, a French botanist, Michel Adanson, determined that the plant represented a separate genus and published the new name as Arctostaphylos uva-ursi; this new Greek genus name translates into English as bear’s grapes.

Arctostaphylos became a more complex genus following early nineteenth-century collections by European botanists who observed many variants along the Pacific Coast of North America. The taxonomic variation continues to the present day, and the genus is recognized as one of the most complex groups of shrubs in the North American flora.

Here’s the crux of the taxonomic debate: most manzanita have a specific, local natural distribution. It’s sometimes hard to tell one species from another. Yet, they interbreed in the wild, easily and readily wherever natural ranges overlap. The number of species found in the genus depends upon the taxonomist you talk to. In the reckoning of Bart O’Brien, senior staff research associate at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, California, there are ninety species and 140 named cultivars.

The most recent comprehensive taxonomic treatment of the California flora, The Jepson Manual (UC California Press, 1993) will, however, have a new treatment of Arctostaphylos in 2008, written by Tom Parker, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, along with his SFSU colleague, conservation biologist Michael Vasey, and Jon E Keeley, research scientist at the USGS West Ecological Research Center in Sequoia, California. They have conducted extensive genetic research on manzanitas, the results of which will modify the current accepted, morphology-based classification of the genus.

According to Tom Parker, the new treatment will involve few name changes, but will include greater descriptions of the relationships among species. The researchers found two new species, and a recognized but unnamed subspecies. One new species is Arctostaphylos gabilanensis, a small tree found in the Gabilan Mountains, on the east side of California’s Salinas Valley; the other is A. ohloneana, a small shrub found in the southern Santa Cruz Mountains. “The morphology [of manzanita] has been good in many cases,” says Parker, “but misleading.” In other words, says Steve Edwards, director of the Regional Parks Botanical Garden in Berkeley, “the plants may look like each other, the groupings may seem natural, but the genetics say you’re wrong.”

When even the taxonomists disagree, what’s a gardener to do? Simply forget the taxonomists and enjoy the plants.

Manzanitas are so well adapted to specific biogeographic spots that they cluster together and dominate their particular landscape in what are called manzanita barrens. In the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs, California, for example, manzanita barrens dominate several hiking trails. The three species in the San Jacinto Mountains are stunning year round. Their striking twisted trunks, and the mahogany-cinnamon color of their smooth bark enlivens the forest, rocks, and boulders in the honeycombed canyons of greens and grays and coffees. Even their silvery skeletons shine.

Alas, the high-living (5,000 feet plus) San Jacinto manzanitas, variants of Arctostaphylos glandulosa, A. pungens, and A. pringlei subsp. drupacea, will not do well in lowland gardens, but no matter. Manzanitas look so much alike that Western gardeners need not suffer a deprivation of plant aesthetics; there is sure to be one nearby that will work in your garden.

Some species bloom in winter, others in spring; many are identified by the shape, color, and composition of the nascent inflorescence. The individual flowers are typical of the heather family (Ericaceae). Bart O’Brien, in California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press, 2005), noted that people “who take the time to closely observe these blossoms are richly rewarded by their intense honey-like fragrance and their nodding bunches of thick, waxy, white to pink, urn-shaped flowers.”

Manzanita leaves are thick and leathery and come in many tones of bright green through bluish gray and gray green; new stems and foliage often appear in bronze red tones.

But it’s the peeling, cinnamon-kissed, red bark on architecturally fascinating shapes that so appeals. Red is the essential signaling color in the natural world, according to science writer Natalie Angier, and it’s a signal to us, as well. Not all manzanitas have this distinctive bark; some are shaggy and gray. But, when the smooth-barked species shed their annual papery bracelets, that red shines more than ever.

And those twisting shapes? Like almost everything else about manzanita, there’s a complicated story behind their elegant roundish turns and angular shoots. Manzanitas’ nodding flower clusters terminate the growth of a branch. (In most other plants, flowers don’t function as “stop signs.”) Five or six buds may break below the inflorescence, resulting in an infinitely interesting structure.

Manzanitas are not long-lived plants; the average life span of a shrub is twenty-five to fifty years, but some individuals can live for as much as a century. Most, but not all, are chaparral plants; all want their foliage out in the sunlight. You will often see manzanita branches with only a strip of red bark on them, terminating in foliage. The rest of the branch will be gray, marking dead tissue, a survival strategy: plants are not obligated to maintain all that living tissue in shade-shrouded branches, so why waste the energy?

Those barrens in exposed areas are also exercises in species preservation. Some soil substrates are the exclusive province of particular manzanitas. Their tough leaves do duty, too—as “models of adaptation to heat and drought,” O’Brien calls them.

Manzanitas may be tough, with inventive and unusual survival instincts, but they are not equipped to withstand habitat destruction by humans, a particular problem for a plant with a narrow species distribution. A number of species in California are threatened or endangered in the wild. Regeneration of most California species is fire dependent; fire suppression on public lands can cause a sharp decline in populations in the wild. That’s partially the fate of an endangered species endemic to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Santa Cruz manzanita (Arctostaphylos andersonii).

Another critical species is Pajaro manzanita (Arctostaphylos pajaroensis),

which was endangered as early as the 1930s in its natural range in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. That’s when, during a misguided attempt at conservation, exotics and introduced natives destroyed at least part of that manzanita’s home, a maritime chaparral ecosystem. Fortunately, some individuals are preserved in the wild, protected by the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, south of Santa Cruz.

A remarkable story of manzanita conservation involves the Vine Hill manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora) in Sonoma County, California. In 1932, only about a hundred of these manzanitas existed in the wild. In the

following years, these survivors and their progeny were assaulted by agriculture, crankcase oil (applied to control roadside weeds), and bulldozers. After the passionate exhortations of botanist and preservationist James Roof in 1972, the hillside property was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and deeded to the California Native Plant Society. (See Phil Van Soelen’s article in Pacific Horticulture, January 2004).

You might consider, too, reading the lovely elegy for the exquisite Arctostaphylos crustacea subsp. rosei by San Francisco plantsman and garden designer Geoffrey Coffey, “The Lost Manzanitas of Brotherhood Way”. With its crimson-margined leaves, this manzanita may well survive as “a single specimen . . . hemmed in on all sides by weeds and development, actually healthy and robust but all alone, the last of its kind in the San Francisco wild.”

Like almost all native plants everywhere, manzanitas prefer the well-drained soil and climate of their native ranges. Gardeners should educate themselves carefully when choosing a manzanita for their gardens.

Manzanitas are not totally carefree in the garden; they need to be treated with care. Because of their tough leathery leaves, it’s difficult to tell when a plant is suffering; they often simply turn color and, suddenly, die.

In general, manzanitas will not tolerate high mountains and low deserts, alkaline soils, or too much water. When well established, most species are capable of surviving the annual summer drought without irrigation. Almost all prefer full sun.

(N.B.: This article has appeared in different forms in Wildflower,and in Pacific Horticulture. Copyright 2012 by Paula Panich. Flickr photo; thank you, unknown photographer.)