Arctostaphylos Survey at Chickadee Gardens

Arctostaphylos deserve the spotlight today. It is early December and while the garden still has a lot going on, much of it is going dormant. Time for the evergreens to shine. Commonly known as manzanitas, arctostaphylos are broad-leafed evergreen shrubs and sometimes trees native to the West Coast from Canada to Mexico. They are so well adapted to this climate with our wet, cool winters and hot, dry summers that to give them too much fuss in one's garden can end up sending them packing. In other words, they thrive with no summer irrigation and un-amended but well-drained soil. They make fantastic plants for either groundcovers or become sexy specimens when limbed up to show off that exfoliating dark muscular bark, or sometimes small trees. 

Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Saint Helena'

In my dry garden, arctostaphylos are becoming the backbone of structure as they grow and age gracefully, never asking anything from me but good air circulation. They look fantastic year-round and are given ample room to spread out, something to consider when choosing for your own garden. Pruning is tricky, it's best to choose cultivars that will fit a desired locale without resorting to keeping it artificially smaller. While some can be too large or too scrubby in appearance for a fine, small town garden I do believe there is room in most gardens here for at least one as they come in many sizes. Plus, being winter bloomers, they are a boon for bumblebees and other native insects. There are so many cultivars available these days it's difficult to keep track which is a good thing, proving they are deservedly quite popular and increasingly in production for commercial sale.

Here at Chickadee Gardens there are about 12 decent sized plants of varying species as well as many Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, kinnikinic. Here is a survey of our arctos (as I affectionately refer to them).

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, commonly known as kinninnick is a splendid groundcover, trailing over walls or on the soil surface. Painfully slow growing for me, I am excited to see this healthy specimen finally covering the edges of the retaining wall.

On the left you can see it just spilling over. It has been there for several years (but I neglect it). This is one species that can handle summer irrigation better than most. In fact, you often see this plant in commercial and public settings as a groundcover.

Arctostaphylos x 'Pacific Mist' while not as petite as A. uva-ursi, it is indeed a low growing plant. Here it cascades down a rocky slope with a south facing aspect. It has conspicuously narrow silver leaves and can in time grow quite large. 

A. x 'Pacific Mist', note it's just beginning to bloom in early December.

Detail of new growth. 

It is said to reach about 2' tall and 10' wide, but this specimen at the UCSC Arboretum is easily twice that size. Having seen this gigantic 'Pacific Mist' I'll be watching the size on mine closely.

A. x 'Pacific Mist' on the left, A. 'Harmony' on the right which illustrates the color difference in foliage as well as the difference in growth habit of just two of many arctos in cultivation.

In the very center is another low grower, Arctostaphylos x 'John Dourley'

More of a low, wide shrub at about 3' tall by about 6' wide, it has attractive red maroon leaf margins and pretty little pink flowers.

Detail of A. x 'John Dourley'

Arctostaphylos pumila 'Grey Leaf Form'  is just about my favorite arcto right now. Although it is not limbed up to expose its bark, it is rather more useful as a small shrub. Why is it my favorite? Its clean foliage, abundance of flowers, leaf color and smaller size at about 3' high by about 4' wide make it easy to place in the garden.

Detail of A. 'Grey Leaf Form'

A slightly wider shot of A. 'Gray Leaf Form'

Arctostaphylos x 'Austin Griffiths' with Ceanothus gloriosus at its feet. this will eventually reach about 10' tall by 6' wide. One of the best in cultivation, it is an outstandingly beautiful arcto. 

I would consider it a large shrub rather than a tree. Its pretty flowers have a pink blush and are well-visited by hungry hummingbirds.

Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'Harmony' that seems to want to grow downward rather than an upright 7' x 7'. I think it's taking after its neighbor, the prostrate A. 'Pacific Mist'. 

A. 'Harmony' foliage detail. Give it great air circulation and no summer water.

Arctostaphylos silvicola 'Ghostly' should be my favorite because it's so cool with its super silver white foliage for an arcto. But it haunts me because it is the one most troubled by leaf spot. The only time it was ever clean looking was during heat dome last summer. That is a cue for me to either increase its air circulation or move it or let it go.

A. 'Ghostly'

The tips all appear to be disease free, but most of its leaves have some spots. One note on arctos to help prevent this is to mulch around the base of the plant with sharp gravel or grit. This keeps water from splashing on soil that then reaches the bottom of the plant, thereby transferring pathogens. Have you ever had an arcto with spotty leaves on the bottom and many dead/dying leaves fall off? Mulching with gravel or rock helps in a garden setting.

Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'Howard McMinn' is another great garden worthy arcto. This specimen is about three years old and will become an anchoring color and shape in what is otherwise a frothy grouping of grasses and asters.

A second shot showing the recently exposed lower limbs. I will continue to shape this beautiful plant over the years.

A. 'Howard McMinn' foliage

Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Saint Helena'  is tied as my favorite with A. pumila. Why do I dig it so much? Its gorgeous broad, ovate silver gray leaves that always look crisp and healthy, its large size at about 10' tall at maturity, its name (I live in Saint Helens, after all) and its bark. This particular specimen is about three years old.

This specimen in the background is about six years old and stands at about 8' tall.

Detail of A. 'Saint Helena' foliage. Not a spot to be found.

Pairs well with yucca

This specimen is about four years old and was limbed up from the bottom earlier this year.

This is what I mean when I say "muscular limbs".

Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'Sentinel' at about four years old and is about 5' tall. At maturity it should be about 7' x 7'.

This specimen is about five years old but oddly, much smaller at about 3' tall. I think the difference is the former is in a much more open aspect with room to spread while this specimen is at the top of the berm garden surrounded by grasses and hebes. That's my guess.

A. 'Sentinel' foliage detail

It does have very sexy bark. 

The exfoliating part of arcto bark usually occurs in summertime and is primarily due to stem growth. It is also thought to be a response to deter moss growing on its surface. This is a photo of A. 'Sentinel' from this past summer.

Pretty foliage of A. 'Sentinel'. 

While not in the same genus (but the same family Ericaceae), the related Arbutus menziesii or madrona/madrone deserves a mention. This was a volunteer from a neighborhood tree. It has grown rapidly and seems to be healthy so it stays. Notoriously difficult to propagate, these are rarely found in nurseries. We count ourselves lucky to have one growing here. Note the Arctostaphylos 'Saint Helena' on the left.

Not planted yet are Arctostphylos viscida and Arctostaphylos auriculata ‘Knobcone Point’ - with full assessments in a couple of years. 

While I am certainly no expert on arctos (leave that to Paul and Greg at Xera Plants, among others), I do appreciate them and happen to grow several that I find quite garden-worthy. Do you have any favorite arctos? Let us know, we'll spread the love. Here is a link to an article Paul Bonine, co-owner at Xera Plants, wrote for Pacific Horticulture for some excellent and in-depth reading about the many species found and their traits as well as growing conditions. Great stuff.

Arctostaphylos are a wonderful, sturdy evergreen presence in my garden with their non-spiny leaves and sweet flowers, sexy bark and (often) silvery foliage. They are one of four genera that I count on here at Chickadee Gardens, the other three are hebe, cistus and ceanothus. I plan on doing similar posts for these as well. Stay tuned. And on that note, are there any subjects that you wish for me to cover? I am open to suggestions, let me know in the comments.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you! Happy gardening!


  1. Wow, that's a beautiful collection! I think manzanitas are truly underappreciated, esp. the smaller groundcover forms. They're so useful and need so little.

    My favorite manzanitas are 'Ian Bush' (an A. densiflora hybrid) and the Mt. Diablo manzanita, A. auriculata. They might not be hardy enough for your climate.

    1. OOooh, I'll have to look that one up. Sounds intriguing! Yes, they are underappreciated although they seem popular in my circle of garden friends. Thanks for the feedback, Gerhard.

  2. Thank you for the detailed survey, Tamara. I'm lucky to have 4 full-sized Arbutus 'Marina' I inherited with the garden but I should explore more plants in the Arctostaphylos genus, as I have just one, A. bakeri 'Louis Edmunds'. It's still very small after 3 years in the ground (as of today according to my file!) but it's planted on my neglected back slope, the very driest area of my garden. I'm interested in the low-growing groundcover forms.

    1. Kris, 'Louis Edmunds' is one of my favorites, too. There's a stunning (small) specimen at the Theodore Payne Foundation SE of Pasadena growing in a hot and dry spot next to the parking lot. This variety loves the heat.

    2. Arbutus are so fabulous too. Louis Edmunds is a popular one here as well, hopefully it will take off soon for you! I wonder if A. 'Monterey Carpet' would do well for you, Kris? It's a gorgeous ground cover type arcto.

  3. 'Louis Edmunds' is in my Socal garden too, surviving on a shockingly small amount of water since it's not irrigated and the drought is relentless. Tamara, I love these overviews and look forward to the next one. I brought an arcto 'Sunset' with me to Oregon and recently pulled it from the ground and into a stock tank filled with garden soil and perlite. Not sure how it will take to container life but the rainfall struck me as excessive for survival! Currently I'm obsessed with dry paths on a budget and have pulled up a big chunk of lawn to replace with crushed rock, trying to do it all on the cheap -- not easy! And on a property your size I wonder how you keep dry foot paths.

    1. Aah, Sunset is another fabulous cultivar. Not sure about how any would do in containers, I know they usually look crummy in nursery pots and I had to persuade people to trust me and buy them that they would outgrow their funky pot phase at the nursery.

      Well, as far as dry paths - keeping them as in maintenance? They are maintenance, for sure, but then again everything is in the garden if you choose to make it so which I do. Weeding is interesting as gravel is a perfect medium for seedlings of all kinds - weeds and desirables. Edging the ones in grass takes some effort, but it's not too bad. I find the deeper the gravel the less maintenance. We use crushed quarter ten gravel. And also we do give some paths a little top off from time to time when the gravel wears thin. The other maintenance is leaf blowing the pine needles and leaves off of the surface so they don't decompose and make dirt and therefore more weeds. I use a little battery powered blower that does the trick ok. The gravel we buy by the unit so it is not that expensive. Could you use repurposed concrete for paths to fill in some of the areas? I have seen people giving that away. Just a thought!

    2. I'm curious about how big you think Sunset generally gets. Our garden planner put one in this year in a pretty small raised bed area (thinking it would stay under 4' per Xera I think), and I'm nervous seeing the size ranges going up to 10' in some estimates. It also seems very shrubby, unlike other Manzanitas that show off their bark. The red tipped foliage is very pretty though. We have a James Roof in another area and I'm thinking of swapping them, but I can't find any "overview" photos of James Roof to know how it will look full grown.

    3. Hi Ana, first off I don't personally grow either, though I've sold them at Joy Creek Nursery and have seen them around. Sunset is a rounded and wide lower shrub, James Roof - Arctostaphylos hookeri are smaller and lower, so if that's what you're after maybe do swap them. Does anyone out there have experience growing either of these that can help Ana? Thanks!

  4. A very timely review Tamara as I am creating a design for my mother's back garden on the south tip of Vancouver Island. I love the look of the smaller more tree- like manzanitas so am considering putting one in that will block her view of a neighbour. Thanks so much. As always lots of cool things happening in your garden.

    1. Aah, the smaller tree-like ones are gorgeous, I hope you find the perfect specimen for your mother. Many of them grow quite quickly so hopefully will block the view soon. Saint Helena was an especially fast grower for me.

  5. What a lovely tribute to your collection of Arctostaphylos. I so wish I had a sunnier and dryer area in my garden for one of these small trees. As it is, I added the ground cover earlier in 2021, so at least I have that going for me :-D.
    Cheers for your Madrone volunteer, lucky you! It has the most amazing colorful peeling bark.

    1. They do indeed need drier areas in summer, but the groundcover A. uva-ursi is wonderful! Glad you got that one - they pay off in the long run for sure.

      We are super excited to see the madrone mature and get that gorgeous bark and will certainly share pix when it gets there!

  6. Wonderful look at these treasured plants. Would you believe I have three in my small front garden? Ugh. I need to get out there and do some pruning.

    While the Arctostaphylos uva-ursi in your third photo looks great, it's the agaves that I noticed first, naturally. They're getting so big!

    Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'Harmony' does the sideways thing in my garden too. It was headed that way even in it's tiny nursery pot 10 years ago, which is why I bought it (from Joy Creek). It looked "windswept"...

    1. Wowza Danger, three in your front garden? Actually you are the master of cramscaping with style so no, not that surprised. They all look amazing.

      Of course you spotted the agaves! They are growing rapidly, for sure. In fact many pups are spotted several feet away from the parent plants, that's true with Oscar as well.

      Your 'Harmony' does that too? I bought mine from Xera so maybe it's not a coincidence they do the windswept look. Kind of funny!


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