On a hillside above the bay, the ground is covered with tiny, bell-shaped flowers so thick they look like a January snow fell here. Overhead, bees and hummingbirds are busy among the myriad blooms covering the arching, red-limbed shrubs, growing in places into low trees. This is a beautiful patch of common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) alongside the Turtleback Nature Trail at China Camp State Park, but is prime bloom time for this and many species of manzanita that occur throughout the area, so get out and enjoy them if you can!
This fantastic genus can be daunting to key, as the different species appear very similar at first, but the Marin Flora breaks them down so the local ones are not actually difficult (though when you go farther afield, it can get much more daunting). And even if you don’t want to key them – still go see them. Maybe bring a companion, a book, or a picnic. They are a delight, and worth spending a bit of time with. Common manzanita has a graceful, tall growth form that is particularly inviting. If you happen to be accompanied by a toddler, as I was, then you can likely spend an easy hour in the “castles” beneath their branches.
The name “manzanita” means “little apple”, and like apples, the fruits of these shrubs were once a cherished staple among local tribes. The fruit of the small berries has a mealy texture, but a lovely sweet flavor–go ahead and take a nibble next time you see some. The edible seeds were ground to make pinole, and the fruit can be crushed and soaked to make manzanita cider or jelly.