Manzanita, Herbal Ally in the West

Manzanita, Arctostaphylos spp.

I live in a yellow pine forest in Southern California where Manzanita are growing in my yard and throughout the mountain. This is a common plant in western states with gorgeous deep red bark and elegant smooth branches dancing and lifting their hands to the heavens. They grow anywhere from 4-25 feet tall depending upon the species. The trees in my yard are about 6 feet tall. All but one are A. pringlei spp. drupacea, their common name is Pink-bracted or Sticky Manzanita. The lone A. patula has berries slightly larger than the pringlei and leaves that are narrower with a pointed tip. These gorgeous trees are edible and possess medicinal properties. A. patula is a smaller shrub.

The name Manzanita is derived from the Greek words ‘arktos’ meaning bear and ‘staphyle’ meaning bunch of grapes. This makes sense since bears (and other critters) eat the berries. I’ve been told by the local rangers that we have only three black bears roaming the hills. On my many hikes in the area I’ve never see one, nor any trace of one.

The flowers come in a sweet urn shape with white or pink coloration that bloom from April to July where I live (5560 ft), but earlier at lower elevation. The flowers grow in a raceme (cluster) as shown below.

Manzanita flowers are edible and can be added to salads, drinks, and infusions. They are sweet when tasted right after they bloom, becoming tart and bitter the longer they dangle on the tips of branches.

A hiking partner of mine a couple years ago asked the name of Manzanita as we ascended a steep trail here on the mountain. As I introduced her to this indigenous edible plant, I picked a flower and popped it into my mouth. She was brave enough to do the same, but not before opening the flower to look inside, because she intuitively knew there was a bug in hers. She was correct!!

It’s fun to encourage people to taste Manzanita flowers because they are always surprised that they are actually edible and by their pleasant taste.

Did you know that flowers become fruit?

After the flower has died back, fruit emerges, and contained within is the seed of the plant. Plants are sexual beings, too. Flowering plants contain ovaries and require pollination to become fruit.

When pollination occurs in a Manzanita the tiny fruit that develops looks very much like a little green apple: Manzanita is Spanish for ‘little apple’. The taste is similar to a green apple if eaten while still green and slightly red (like the photo to the left shows), and before they start to darken and dry up. The berries can be made into jelly, cider, and they even make a tasty elixir (made with brandy & honey). Traditional people made tea with the berries to support the body during bronchial problems.

I like to gather the berries when they are still green, and make an elixir with them. See recipe below.

Cahuilla

The original people of the lands where I currently live are the Cahuilla. They collected the fruit, mashed the pulp, added water, and then strained it. This was one of the beverages they enjoyed. Another way to make a beverage with the berries is simply soak them in water. You can also make a hot tea with them. The Cahuilla sun-dried the fruit to use at a later time. After grinding the dried fruit into a meal, they could then mix it in with various recipes. They had extensive knowledge of plants and traded various species with other tribes for goods.

Have you seen this shrub?

Manzanita is so inviting. When you see them in fruit, you immediately wonder if the berries are edible, and now you know they are!

Contemporary preparation of the berries is to brew them in water, which makes a delightful refreshing drink, like an iced tea. You can also drink it warm when backpacking or camping. I like to collect a just a few berries and add them to my water bottle while hiking. Not only do these preparations taste yummy, but they are a unique way to connect with nature and Manzanita more deeply. And of course, the plant has beneficial properties.

Tinctures – Alcohol Extraction photo by C.R.Y. Herbals

The thick leaves are elliptical and have a light green color. They are evergreen, meaning they do not lose their leaves in winter. Some species are smooth while others are sticky, and in some cases fuzzy. The leaves are used in infusions, decoctions, and even tinctured. A tincture is an alcohol extraction of the constituents of the plant. Infusions and decoctions are water extractions.

In Christopher Nyerges’ book Foraging California he describes a smoking mix made with desert manzanita. He dries the leaves, crumbles them, and then enjoys the herbal smoke. He tells the story of traditional use in Northern California where an infusion was made with the leaves and consumed to relieve poison oak symptoms quickly. He never tried this himself but heard firsthand accounts of this preparation working effectively. Good to know.

Manzanita is known to help urinary tract infections, which is why having a tincture on hand might be a good idea. But since the plant is evergreen, you can gather leaves any time during the year to make an infusion or decoction when the need arises. Manzanita should not be consumed for long periods of time. It’s high in tannins and this can be drying to your system.

Decocting the leaves was a common practice of the traditional people of this region and used for cleaning cuts, wounds, and even to help relieve a headache. The Cahuilla also used this as an infusion to improve symptoms of urinary tract infections.

The active constituents of manzanita are tannins, flavonoids, triterpenes, quercetin, arbutin, and others.

What’s the difference between an infusion and decoction?

Decoctions are made using a hot water extraction method. Place your herbs in a pan and fill the pan with spring or filtered water. Bring to a brief boil and let it warm on low heat for at least 20 minutes and up to a few hours. You can then drink this, or let it cool to clean cuts and wounds. If you have a headache, saturate a washcloth or another piece of fabric with the liquid, squeeze out excess, and place over forehead. Lie down to rest while the plant relieves your pain.

An infusion is also a water extraction method, much a like a cup of tea, but with most herbs you’ll let them steep longer than 3 minutes. Place the herbs in the vessel of your choosing, i.e. cup or larger container for larger amounts. Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover and let steep from 5 to 30 minutes. The length of time depends on the type of herbs. The more fragrant the herb (something like peppermint), the more volatile oils are contained within its properties. Volatile herbs can be hard on the stomach, so it’s best to steep them for shorter periods of time.

Cold infusions are a preferred method for some herbs like Marshmallow Root and Nettle. Simply pour cold water over the herb, cover and let it steep (infuse) for several hours or overnight.

Just yesterday, I gathered a large handful of the sticky leaves and berries from the trees in my yard to make a solar infusion (sun tea). I didn’t add anything else, no lemon or honey, just the plant itself. It was a refreshing drink on a hot summer day. Very mild and pleasant tasting.

Protected Plant

Many Manzanita are protected in California. It is illegal to cut them or take anything from them except the berries. It’s absolutely imperative you correctly identify any wild plant before foraging. And it’s necessary to know your local foraging guidelines. In my neck of the woods, foraging is not allowed. I’m fortunate to have them growing on my property.

Ways to Get to Know Manzanita

As with any wild food, it’s important to consume it small amounts at first to confirm it won’t cause a reaction. Wild foods are loaded with compounds and nutrients, and in many cases are much more potent than anything you would purchase at your market. Always best to test it out first to be safe.

As a salad ingredient. Gather a small handful of Manzanita flowers, gently rinse, and adorn your salad with these pretty flowers.

To enhance your drink. Again, gather a small handful, gently rinse, and add to any drink to enhance its appearance and taste.

As a tea. The leaves make a mild tea. Gently pull off a ½ cup of leaves from various branches on the shrub, gently rinse. You can chop them up into smaller pieces or simply use the whole leaves. Place them in a cup or heat resistant vessel, pour boiling water over them. Cover and let steep for at least 10 minutes. Strain the herbs and enjoy. You can add honey, lemon, or whatever you desire.

Manzanita Berry Elixir

Gather berries when they are green with a bit of reddish purple on them. You can also collect them when they are completely red, but don’t wait too long into summer when they will begin to dry out and wrinkle. With some species the berries will be very sticky, so you’ll want to remove any debris from them. Fill a sanitized glass jar with an airtight lid to about ½ to 1-inch from the top. Select the size of the jar based upon the volume of berries. Add Brandy to fill jar about 2/3 full and then top it off with raw local honey. Cover with airtight lid. Leave a teeny bit of room at the top of the jar so contents can move freely, because you’ll be shaking the jar daily to keep the berries covered and saturated with your solvents. It’s important to bring the solvents up close to the top of jar to avoid oxidation, or worse mold. If you shake your jar daily mold won’t be a concern. As long as your herbal matter is fully saturated and covered with the liquid your product will be fine. Label the jar with its contents and the date your project began.

I use two methods for mixing honey in with brandy and herbs.

  1. Stir with a sanitized stir stick until thoroughly combined. Note: If the honey is very thick, this can be a difficult method. Cover the jar with an airtight lid.  
  2. After covering the jar with an airtight lid, turn it upside down to begin mixing contents. Place on the counter where you’ll see it throughout the day, and each time turn the jar over. This method generally takes several hours for the honey to thin out and mix well with the Brandy. Continue to turn jar until the liquid is completely blended. 

Every day gently shake jar to mix contents and to ensure all herbs are covered with the liquid. Leave in jar for at least 4 weeks (one moon cycle) and up to 12 weeks.

When you’re ready to remove from the jar, select a vessel large enough to pour the liquid into. Place a strainer over the vessel, uncover the jar of berries and pour contents inside. Let the berries drain thoroughly. You can also use cheesecloth lined in the strainer and then you’ll squeeze the berries to get as much liquid out as possible. Sometimes, I use a fruit press for this step.

The liquid is your elixir!! Pour into a small bottle for use and store the rest into a glass jar with an airtight lid. This preparation is very shelf stable.

Strength, Beauty, and Vitality of Manzanita

I can’t help but admire these indigenous shrubs for their strength, beauty, and vitality even in the worst conditions. They thrive with little water and often poor soil conditions. If you’ve ever walked through a Manzanita forest, you will feel their strength and immediately admire their beauty.


Resources:
Temalpak: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants, Lowell John Bean & Katherine Siva Saubel, 1987
Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, Cecilia Garcia & James D. Adams, Jr., 2009
Foraging California: Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods in California, Christopher Nyerges, 2014
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore, 2003
Native American Food Plants, Daniel E. Moerman, 2010
Urban Oasis Landscape Design, 2021
MANZANITA (herbworld.com), 2006

2 Comments

  1. Margaret Mitchell

    Thank you for the informative article!
    I’m looking for a very small amount of dried berries to add to a very special tea mix for a wedding of a dear friend who grew up on the outskirts of Yosemite park. I can’t seem to find dried berries for sale anywhere. Can you point me in the direction of a resource or individual willing to sell me some? I just need a cup or so.

    Reply
    • Deborah Burroughs

      Hi Margaret,

      There’s a store in Idyllwild, CA. (where I used to live) that might have some. The store name is/was Merkaba. It was recently purchased and has a new owner, so I’m not sure if she has any Manzanita, but check with her. What a lovely gift idea – hope you can find some Manzanita berries for the tea blend for your friend. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Warning: Attempt to read property "post_status" on null in /home/customer/www/cryherbals.com/public_html/wp-admin/includes/template.php on line 2298

Warning: Attempt to read property "ID" on null in /home/customer/www/cryherbals.com/public_html/wp-admin/includes/template.php on line 2316

Warning: Attempt to read property "post_status" on null in /home/customer/www/cryherbals.com/public_html/wp-admin/includes/template.php on line 2320

Warning: Attempt to read property "ID" on null in /home/customer/www/cryherbals.com/public_html/wp-admin/includes/template.php on line 2325

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This