Only two botanical gardens in California collect exclusively native plants: the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, http://www.sbbg.org/, and the Regional Botanical Garden in Berkeley, http://www.nativeplants.org/. In early spring, the botanical garden in Santa Barbara is a sight worth the visit. In the heart of the garden ― set around the old caretaker’s cottage ― you will find an array of about 20 Manzanita species. Most are shrubs, but some take the form of low ground-covers, while a few are tall enough to be considered trees.
As is true of many California native plants, over the millenia, different species and sub-species have evolved to adapt to the widely varying climates in California. In some cases, the variations in species and subspecies are quite slight. For instance, we have a native, San Francisco sub-species of Manzanita, Arctostaphylos hookeri, subsp. franciscana, common name Franciscan Manzanita. (Until recently, the San Francisco subspecies was thought to be extinct in the wild. A few, low shrubs could be found in various botanical gardens. Happily, during the recent re-construction of Doyle Drive , the access road to the Golden Gate Bridge, a huge patch of native San Franciscan Manzanita was discovered.)
This San Francisco sub-species is one of many closely related Bay Area forms of Manzanita. “Tamalpais Manzanita, “Presidio Manzanita,” and “Hearst’s Manzanita” are all also subspecies of A. hookeri. The Presidio form is endangered (presumably due to the urban proximity of its native habitat), but the Tamalpais and Hearst’s subspecies are thriving.
Whenever I visited Santa Barbara, I used to succumb to temptation and bring back a couple of plants from the Santa Barbara garden nursery. Then, a biologist explained to me that it is ill-advised to bring Santa Barbara natives to the Bay Area. Apparently, “foreign plants” from a different eco-system could cross-pollinate with local species and mess up the local gene pool. So now I demur.
All Manzanitas along the coast bloom in early spring (beginning in February or March). The exact date each year depends on the timing of the winter rainfall. Some blossoms are pinkish, some pure white. All take the form of tiny, urn-shaped bells, hanging in clusters. The branches of every species are twisted in arresting, sculpture-like configurations set off by the Manzanita hallmark of smooth, deep-red bark.
The Santa Barbara garden used to have, in addition, a splendid collection of Ceanothus. Also known as California wild lilac, Ceanothus is another early spring bloomer. Although its blossoms range in color from white to intense, purple-blue, the best known species bear blue blossoms, sometimes in profuse numbers.
Unfortunately, in one of the recent and all-too-common Santa Barbara wild fires, “Ceanothus Hill,” as it is known, was completely scorched. So, now, you must go to Berkeley or the San Francsico Botanical Garden’s native plant section, to enjoy Ceanothus in the spring.
One of the common species of Ceanothus local to the Bay Area is Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, also known as “Blue Blossom.” It is said that a bush of C. thyrsiflorus could be found in the front garden of almost every early San Francisco house. I suspect that it is since the 1906 fire that these Ceanothus have disappeared from the city. They are still abundant in the wild.
After the amateur botanist has trained his eye in one of the botanical gardens to recognize Manzanita and Ceanothus, he should venture into the field. Many handsome forms of both genuses can be found in the Pt. Reyes vicinity, around Half Moon Bay, on the slopes of Mt. Diablo and in San Simeon State Park. Not surprisingly, many California native plants flourish in these wild areas.