Not a magnificent shrub in stature, girth, or symmetry, the common manzanita (Arctostaphytos manzanita) still stands out against its California habitat. The brown chaparral and bleak earth background highlight the manzanita's remarkably smooth, tight-fitting skin of dark red on its trunk and intertwined branches.
Rarely more than 30' tall at maturity, this native of the dry inland mountains sports an evergreen crown often spreading as wide as its height. Come the winter rainy season, it puts all competitors to shame with showy white or light pink blooms. Later in the year, its twisted limbs bear tiny fruits, which the state's Spanish-speaking pioneers dubbed "little apples," thus giving the plant its present name.
With its gnarled shape and squat trunk, the manzanita never attracts lumbermen. Local crafters, however, find the manzanita's branches appealing in floral arrangements. But in the roots they discover perhaps manzanita's most intriguing aspect. Beneath the ground lies a fascinating burl that, when sawn, cleaned, and polished, can pass for ceramics or marble. (Lest burl collectors decimate the manzanita, permits are required to dig specimens on California's federal lands.)
Under the woodturner's touch, this "mountain driftwood" evolves into naturally colorful weed pots and vases. But beware of this beauty. The burls frequently grow around rocks that remain undetected until suddenly hit by a turning tool!
Illustration: Jim Stevenson