Holly A. Heyser
If you live in the West, you've seen the mystical manzanita: it is a captivating shrub, if such a thing can be said with a straight face. Manzanita leaves are perfect ovals, thick (to hold in moisture) and colored a luminous, silvery green. Under the full moon, the leaves glow eerily. But it's the wood that is so unique: bright red and gnarled. When the bush grows into its adulthood, its bark will burst and flake off like the aftermath of a bad sunburn.
Come upon a manzanita in spring and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a weird blueberry bush. It's not, as manzanita is in the arctostaphylos, not the vaccinium clan, but both shrubs have very similar urn-shaped flowers.
Holly A. Heyser
Come upon a manzanita later in summer and you will understand its name: manzanita means "little apple" in Spanish. Look at the top picture: they really do look like little apples.
Ever since I moved to California I'd read that the berries were quasi-edible, that someone—Indians or Spaniards—did something with them at some point. I even bought a couple of manzanita bushes to plant in that blast furnace I call my front yard. But I bought them because manzanita is a beautiful bush, not because I had designs on the berries.
That was five years ago. My bushes are now big and beautiful, and they set many hundreds of "little apples" this year. I resolved to figure out just what to do with them. As it happens, the Franciscan friars, who were the first European settlers of California, made a sort of cider from the berries. The California Indians did the same thing, plus they made a meal from the dried, ripe berries they'd later use for porridge in winter.
Holly A. Heyser
Cider, eh? I like cider. But really? I'd eaten a berry or two, and I can tell you manzanita is definitely not something to munch on while walking a trail. The berries are loaded with tannin, which sucks all the moisture from your mouth and replaces it with a coating of felt—or at least it feels that way.
There is very little information on manzanita as an edible plant. Charlotte Bringle Clarke mentions it in her excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of California, as does Sylvia Ross in her book Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast.
Opinions and instructions vary wildly. Best I can suss out, the Spaniards liked the berries greenish, while the Indians waited until they were brown and dry. Being of European descent, I decided on picking my manzanita berries green, but with a little rosy blush on them.
I got four cups from one bush, and I did not even pick it clean. Definitely enough to play with. And I'd need to play, because I wasn't exactly sure how to make manzanita cider.
The berries are dry. So I first decided to boil them for 20 minutes, then smash them with a potato masher. I then let this cool overnight and poured it into a mason jar. I let the solids settle for a day. Next day I poured off the liquids through cheesecloth into a clean mason jar. I noticed a lot of fine sludge. I tasted it. Ack! Pure tannin, dry and bitter.
I tasted the cider. Um, ick. It was just like the sludge. Undrinkable. But there was hope embedded in the loss: I could definitely taste an apple-y, acidic flavor that was indeed tasty—before the tannins clubbed me in the forehead.