Arguably, some of the most beautiful shrubs in our Central Arizona Highlands are the Manzanitas, a name that refers to the tiny apple-like fruit of these plants; in Spanish “Manzanita” translates to “little apple.” Our two lovely species are unique to the southwest’s Central Highlands region.
Manzanitas are members of the interior chaparral plant community, and are also found as understory in our woodlands and forests. “Chaparral” refers to the thick short-statured community of plants found on warm, sunny hillsides; plants often grow so dense it is impenetrable for us, but this species rich community provides excellent cover and food for wildlife.
Pointleaf and the Pringle Manzanita are our local species. An easy way to tell them apart is that Pointleaf has leathery, shiny leavers and Pringle that fine hairs, making the color grey-green. Pringle Manzanita also grows to a greater stature with a sturdy trunk; large and very dramatic specimens can be found in the hills around Prescott.
Pointleaf Manzanita gives us the first glimpse of spring; they may flower as early as January. Why flower in winter? Early winter brings warm days in the Highlands, warm enough for small pollinators to emerge. The closed, pendulous, bell-shape flowers encourage some insect pollinators and discourage others. If you stay and watch carefully, you may see some tiny visitors coming and going. Pollination studies have shown that over 40 different insects visit the flowers. Most act as pollinators and many also do some nectar or pollen robbing. If you look closely at the flowers you will often find a small hole on the side of the flower where a robber has been at work.
Interestingly, the Pointleaf Manzanita blooms first. Then the Pringle Manzanita, which has similar flowers, takes over. So pollinators can just shift over, from one to the other species, assured of some precious late winter and early spring sustenance!
Remember, when planning your home site or landscape, carefully retain any manzanita that occur naturally on your site. Although some cultivated species are available at nurseries, our native species are not. The cultivated species never thrive as much or reach the stature of our spectacular natives.