The name Manzanita rolls off the tongue easily. The Spanish priests of early California gave this tree its name little apple for its tiny fruit.
Arctostaphylos Manzanita is its scientific name. In Greek Arktos means bear; Staphyle means cluster of grapes. The bear grape is also called the bear berry because the bears love to feast on it.
The first thing one notices about the Manzanita tree is its truly fine sculptural shape. This one attribute rivals the muscular and sinuous human torsos of the sculptor Rodin. The gnarly branches (arms) and splitting trunk (legs) parallel the torsion (contrapposto) of the classical figure--the way the upper and lower parts of the body dynamically oppose each other when in struggle (a common theme in Rodin's sculptures).
Next you notice the color of its bark. It's a blood red or burgundy-- which makes our association with the color really make it come to life.
The bark is so silky smooth you cannot help but run your hands over it.
You will notice it is also cool to the touch. Because it is cool to the touch it is called the refrigerator tree.
And if you do this in mid-summer you will notice the paper thin skin peeling off to reveal a bright green underlay.
The leathery leaves have a waxy protection and never wilt even in the scorching Lake County sun.
The Manzanita despises watering. The Manzanita has shallow roots so it seems strange that it wouldn't like water. Its survival strategy has evolved to rely on the mycorrhizal fungi underground that supply it with water and nutrients from other native plants. It grows close to oak which have very deep roots so it is believed that they share water and nutrients.
If they do experience excessive drought they will sacrifice a part of themselves in order to allow the rest of the tree to survive. The living parts of the tree then incorporate this dead part into its growth which creates beautiful sinuous weaves of silvery-grey throughout the red trunk and branches. The Manzanita--because of its color, silky smooth un-bark, and coolness to the touch--is mysterious.
Having paper-thin bark would normally make a tree vulnerable to insects, disease, extreme cold and fire. Instead it easily sheds those ailments.
The paper-thin bark also allows light to reach the green underlayer. It's not just the leaves--as in most plants-- that photosynthesize and create the energetic sugar it needs to grow. The amazing thing is that the trunk and branches do too!
Manzanita first appears in the fossil record about 37 million years ago in central California. It is the cradle of manzanita diversity. About 1.5 million it began diversifying and dispersing to places as far as Guatemala and Eurasia. 62 species of Manzanita have adapted to a variety of harsh environments and run the gamut from two inch high ground covers to tall sculptural trees. The rare Konocti manzanita--named for the Mt. Konocti volcano here in Lake County--lives only in volcanic soil.
One of my first winters in Lake County as I was taking a walk, I caught a whiff of perfume. I found it emanating from the Manzanita. In the SF Bay Area I had never encountered a tree blooming in the dead of winter. The pinkish white blossoms not only scented the air but also attracted nectar-seeking bees.
What? How can this be? Bees in the rain? How come the rain doesn't wash away the nectar and pollen?
The blossoms hung down like little upside-down pitchers so the rain couldn't enter. The petals are waxy like a gaucho's waxed overcoat--or like the leaves--so water didn't soak through them to the pollen inside. The pollen can't budge without the help of insects.
Yet we know that the flowers need to get pollinated if berries are to emerge, right?
The bumblebees' acrobatic feat is evolution's innovation. The bees live in underground nests with larvae that are hungry. Pollen offers protein; nectar the energy.
The bumblebee parents in order to drop the pollen--and being very agile--land upside down on the Manzanita flower. The bee prepares for its next gymnastic move by vibrating its wings until it reaches the musical pitch or frequency we know as middle C.
When middle C is reached, pollen grains explode from the anther of the flower onto the bee's belly. With its dusted belly the bee flits to the next flower which is fertilized with pollen. This buzz pollination is called sonication.
In the drawing above titled Ancient Manzanita, the dead wood is woven together with the living tree. And even though the bears like the berry, the tree is a miracle of evolution and deserves the name Manzanita. Or Amazing Manzanita. What do you think?
If you would like to purchase a drawing that witnesses phenomenal nature--and by the way, are tastefully float-framed giclee' prints ready-to-hang at a 20% discount--please click Works on Paper: Prints.
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