Every garden needs a “backbone” – usually trees or shrubs that provide enduring form and structure as perennials and annuals lose their seasonal impact. Native to much of the West Coast, manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are the perfect backbone plants for California – graceful form, picturesque bark, showy clusters of small winter to early spring flowers, and handsome green or gray-green leaves year round.
Why are manzanitas not in every California garden? Perhaps because they often fail to thrive under gardening practices considered normal for East Coast or English gardens and still common throughout California.
Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ is more garden-tolerant than most manzanitas, but it dislikes “wet feet” and will eventually decline if it doesn’t have excellent drainage, good air circulation, no fertilization, and infrequent deep irrigation. Sun to part shade is best.
This manzanita is readily available and widely planted in commercial landscapes, where, for a surprisingly long time, it accepts poor drainage, excessive irrigation, and shearing as severe as English boxwood. The exceptional short-term performance of ‘Howard McMinn’ under such conditions evidently is considered worth the price of periodic replacement.
Given what it needs and enough space to grow to its natural size, ‘Howard McMinn’ is long-lived and becomes ever more beautiful over time. Left to its own devices, it develops an upright mounding form to six or seven feet tall and wider, densely branched, with dark reddish brown, peeling bark, glossy green leaves, and small white flowers tinged with pink, followed by small red berries. Birds, bees, and butterflies love this plant and, once well established, it is not bothered by deer.
There are many other garden-worthy manzanitas, though few as forgiving as ‘Howard McMinn’. A good choice for dry shade is ‘Pacific Mist’, two feet tall and six feet wide with gray-green leaves and an irregular, upright but sprawling habit. ‘Pt. Reyes’ is a low groundcover with dark green rounded leaves, a fine choice for coastal areas but thriving inland with moderate summer water and some shade. ‘Sentinel’ is upright to six or eight feet tall with gray-green leaves and abundant pinkish white flowers. ‘Austin Griffiths’, a favorite of mine, is upright, ten to twelve feet tall, with glossy green leaves, dark maroon bark, and masses of pale pink flowers.