Arctostaphylos — Manzanita Groundcovers
Of the many Arctostaphylos species, many are groundcovers reaching from just a few inches to 1-2 ft. in height and spreading out in clumps up to 10 ft. wide. Most have glossy leaves and stems with the same cinnamon bark as found on larger manzanita shrubs. They also have a lush and dense growth habit when effectively established.
While manzanita groundcovers mature a bit more slowly than a lawn, the color, richness and carpet-like look can serve as a satisfying lawn substitute without a walk-on or play surface. Yet with an easy-care, low, shrubby cover there is no mowing needed.
Most home garden groundcover installations, however, are confined to smaller areas than a broad expanse the size of a lawn. Most often they fill in along walkways, under shrubs and trees, cascade over walls, tumble around rocks, even drape out of large pots.
Manzanita generally requires fast-draining soil and full sun. It is not prone to insect or disease problems, rarely needs to be fertilized, and has small white or pink flowers in early spring followed by berries. (Spanish settlers in the early West named these plants for their berries. Manzanita translates to “little apple.”)
Despite the vast number of low-growing manzanitas in nature, there is a limited number that perform satisfactorily in gardens. Nearly all are named cultivars—plants selected from species for their easy care and good looks.
Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ is probably the favorite of most landscapers, due to its exceptionally dense, rich, green glossy foliage, attractive stems and white flowers in early spring. It is a cross between A. uva-ursi and A. nummularia and needs fertile soil to retain its deep green color. If ‘Emerald Carpet’ begins to turn yellowish, it needs nitrogen fertilizer. Planting in autumn as rains begin and while the soil is still warm helps develop a strong root system. Once established, ‘Emerald Carpet’ does best with irrigation twice monthly during the dry season. In semi-shade, less water is needed.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi has slightly larger leaves and pink flowers followed by red berries. This California native is a bit tougher than ‘Emerald Carpet’, but is not quite as rich and lush looking with slightly more leathery leaves. It, too, benefits from some irrigation in summer. Named cultivars such as ‘Massachusetts’ and ‘Green Supreme’ have the best-looking foliage without center die-back, like some of the other A. uva-ursi varieties.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Point Reyes’ has perhaps the most drought tolerance of any of the manzanita groundcovers. It has pale pink flowers that appear only in a sunny situation and the leaves are less shiny than ‘Emerald Carpet;’ however, in a shaded site—its preferred habitat—foliage is paler green and somewhat glossy. ‘Point Reyes’ will grow in a variety of soil types, but prefers good drainage.
Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Carmel Sur’ is more tolerant of heavy soils than some of the other manzanitas and needs shade in all parts of Sonoma County, at least for part of the day, preferably afternoons. It has a much lighter green leaf than most others, rarely blooms, and is mat-forming, though mature plants may reach 1 ft. tall. It is also quite tolerant of regular garden irrigation.
Arctostaphylos ‘Pacific Mist’ is well suited to sloping sites despite a somewhat slow two or three years before branchlets intertwine enough to smother out weedy competition. Mature growth may reach 2-3 ft. tall.