pierre laszlo


Many specimens have branches that look like well-oiled mahogany, which adds to their strong visual appeal. This shrub thus enriches the bottom of chaparral habitat with its cal-ligraphy. A member of the heather family, the Arctostaphylos genus encompasses about a hundred species, most of which, native to the western United States, are found in Califor-nia. One species, circumboreal, also grows in places such as Sweden or Switzerland. In-deed, Linnaeus, the first to name it scientifically in 1753 translated into Latin its vernacular name, Bears’ Berries. The French naturalist Adanson in 1763 changed it to Greek. The red berries are edible, which explains the term “manzanita” i.e., small apples, given by the Spanish explorers of California. Their urn-shaped flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The leaves, thick, leathery, and small vary in color from bright green to bluish-gray. Manzanitas, depending on species and habitat, range from a few inches to 25 feet in height. The common manzanita is about 20 feet-high. Its twisted trunk and branches, the latter bearing leaves, flowers and berries at their ends only, are highly characteristic. The reddish-brown color of the limbs makes these shrubs very distinctive. They remind this writer, with their writhing silhouettes, of modern ballet dancers with their arabesques, captured by a photographer in frozen motion. Their lifespan is usually a quarter to half-a-century. They resist even a prolonged drought. Human coexistence, as in the San Francisco area, is known to have caused extinction of at least one of the species. The reason might be that manzanitas need wild chaparral fires for their reproduction.  Fire cracks the hard coat of seeds that have accumulated in the litter layer beneath a tree. When manzanitas burn, they do so fiercely and at a high temperature since leaves and branches contain flammable oils which are mixtures of terpenes.