Manzanita – A Most Useful Plant

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Manzanita is a shrub you’ll find growing all over around here, as California is manzanita country. Seen as a nuisance or a fire hazard by many, it’s actually quite an attractive and useful plant. Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish and probably comes from the appearance of the berries, which do look like tiny apples. It can be used in landscaping and for firewood, food and medicine.

One of the earliest flowers to bloom, manzanita produces clusters of tiny urn-shaped blossoms in shades ranging from deep pink to white. Hummingbirds love manzanita nectar and the flowers usually coincide with the spring migration. The bark is deep red and sheds from the branches in small curls. The flat leaves are a pale green that turn silver when highlighted at night or when wet. They can become small trees with intricately twisting branches. Highly drought resistant, it grows in poor soil and on steep ground.

Manzanita as Food

The berries can be eaten both fully and partially ripe. However, fully ripe berries are more likely to be mealy. Native Americans ate the fruit fresh or dried the berries, powdered them and extracted the seeds. They reconstituted the powder with water to make a drink and baked seeds into thin cakes. Seeds were also mixed into other foods.

Jelly

2 quarts of ripe berries
1 ½ cups sugar per cup of juice
3 oz liquid pectin

Wash berries thoroughly. Place into a saucepan, add 1 cup of cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture through a jelly bag. Add sugar and stir well. Bring to a boil for 1 full minute, add 3 ounces of liquid pectin and boil for 2 full minutes. Skim foam, pour into hot, sterile jelly jars and seal.

Cider

Wash and stem 1 quart of fully ripened berries, place into a saucepan. Add 1 quart of cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until berries are soft. Crush with a potato masher and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain. Add a little sugar or honey.

Herbal Remedies

  • Do not use in children under 12 or if pregnant.
  • Simmer the berries well and allow to cool. Use the resulting tea as a lotion for poison oak.
  • Make a tea from fresh or dried leaves and drink for indigestion, headache, mild urinary tract infections or rheumatism.
  • Native Americans chewed the leaves and used them in a thick poultice for sores or headaches.

Manzanita Wood

The wood of the manzanita plant is extremely dense. It can vary in color from deep yellow to a rich reddish brown and takes well to polishing. You can carve it, although as it dries it often develops deep cracks and is not useful for lumber. My daughter makes walking sticks, bird perches and decorative stands for hanging jewelry from manzanita wood. Manzanita can be used for firewood, with a couple of caveats. It burns extremely hot and because it is so dense, it burns at high temperatures for a long time. It is these qualities that make it so dangerous in a forest fire. For firewood, use small amounts, especially in a metal stove, or it may crack the cast iron.

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