Finally, manzanitas for Colorado gardeners! When we first moved to Colorado, back in 1993, I wanted to add some manzanitas to our ponderosa forest landscape, but the cultivars available weren’t deemed hardy enough for our 7000 foot elevation. I gave up and settled for Mahonia—not at all the same thing, but about the only broad-leafed evergreen I could get to grow in my yard.
I should have been more persistent. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think that manzanita was appropriate for Colorado. Now I’m seeing the attractive plants popping up all over the place.
For years, the only manzanitas in cultivation had been bred from specimens collected in more hospitable climates, such as California. No wonder they weren’t tough enough for Colorado. These new cultivars originated right here at home, so they’re perfectly adapted to our gardens.
These new varieties have been so successful, three cultivars won PlantSelect™ status: ‘Mock Bearberry’ in 2005, ‘Panchito,’ in 2006, and the new ‘Chieftain’ in 2013. I can’t wait to plant all of them.
Like the three bears that Goldilocks encountered, these all-star manzanitas come in small, medium, and large. ‘Mock Bearberry’ (above) is a groundcover that does indeed look just like bearberry, aka Kinnikinnick. ‘Panchito’ (right) is a bit taller, perfect for sprawling over boulders. ‘Chieftain’ is the largest, reaching three to four feet in height, and spreading as much as eight to ten feet.
Manzanitas have small, round, mostly evergreen leaves attached to sinuous branches covered with mahogany-red bark, a striking combination. The foliage offers protection to birds and other small animals during a time when weather is severe and cover is rare.
Early spring brings clusters of small white or pink bell-shaped flowers that last for weeks. These eventually ripen into apple-red berries adored by fruit-eating birds and mammals, providing another benefit for wildlife. Finally, cold weather turns the leaves red.
As one would expect, manzanitas are quite xeric, so ensure good drainage. They’re accustomed to the intense sunlight found at high altitudes, and are adapted to the low levels of humus in our alkaline soils.
There are now a number of other cultivars in the nursery trade, with an assortment of sizes and growth habits—so many choices! With so much going for them, manzanitas are on my “must have” list!