An excellent “all in one” plant for California gardeners is Arctostaphylos,
the manzanita. They’re evergreen, so
they provide winter shelter. Many
species produce berries and some have spring flowers that attract
hummingbirds. Low-growing varieties
provide cover and a place to forage for insects. Best of all, they’re attractive and hardy native plants that
require almost no water once established.

 Try the
common manzanita, a shrubby tree that can grow up to 20 feet high and 10 feet
wide. It sports lovely smooth,
purplish-red bark and offers up plenty of berries once the white or pink spring
flowers are spent. “Dr. Hurd” is a
variety that is fairly easy to find in nurseries that specialize in native plants.

 I also like
the prostrate variety A. hookeri, or Monterey manzanita. It grows as a compact mound that can get to
be two or three feet high and spread up to six feet. Flowers are white or pinkish-white and are followed by bright red
berries. This is a good choice for a
dry, sunny slope, and it holds up well on the coast.

good choice for low-growing manzanitas is A. edmundsii, or Little Sur
manzanita. It’s an excellent ground
cover for large, open spaces: one plant
can spread up to about ten feet. “Carmel Sur” has greyer leaves than most, which makes it a good choice
in a seaside garden paired with other silvery foliage.

manzanitas will thrive in sandy, rocky, poor soil. Water them once or twice a week during their first year, and after
that you can cut watering down to one to three times a month. They don’t need to be pruned, but if you
want a dense, compact shrub, you can pinch off growth in the spring to force
the plant to put out more branches. 

 It is
interesting to note that pet stores sell manzanita branches as perches for
caged birds. The hard, smooth wood is
irregular enough to provide a good workout for the feet. In the wild, expect to see sparrows,
mockingbirds, evening grosbeaks, and plenty of hummingbirds enjoying these
versatile and attractive plants.