More than a listing of plant types and general facts, Guild to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition (Chicago Review Press, 2014) is full of fascinating folklore, personal anecdotes, and tasty recipes perfect for anyone who is interested in living closer to the earth. Christopher Nyerges — co-director of the School of Self-Reliance — offers hikers, campers and foragers an array of tips for harvesting and consuming wild edibles. This excerpt provides valuable information about the Wild Manzanita flower, once a food staple of Native American tribes in what is now Southern California.
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Manzanita Arctostaphylos spp.
Heath Family: Ericaceae
Most Prominent Characteristics of Wild Manzanita
Overall Shape and Size: Most varieties appear as shrubs or small trees with crooked branches. At least one species is a vining plant.
Stalks and Stems: Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the manzanita is the striking maroon-colored bark that appears smooth and polished.
Leaves: All manzanita leaves are leathery and tough. The leaves vary in outline from round to oblong or elliptic. The margins of the leaves are entire (in rare cases there are serrations).
Flowers: In the spring, you can observe the small tubular or urn-shaped white or pink flowers on the manzanita bushes. The flower parts are usually in fives.
Fruits: The small fruits externally resemble apples. The fruits that develop in the summer and into the fall are first green, with a smooth surface. The surface of some fruits are sticky. As the fruits mature in late summer, they turn a dark red or maroon color and the flesh becomes mealy or powdery. The hard inner seed is usually composed of two or three nutlets, and sometimes there is just one single seed.
Beneficial Properties of Wild Manzanita
Edible Properties of Wild Manzanita: The most valuable resource from all manzanita species are the small berries, which externally resemble apples. Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish.
If you pick a green fruit and suck on it, you’ll discover an interesting trail nibble. Chances are you’ll spit out your first taste. It’s sour. But there’s also sugar in there, and if you try it again, and again, the flavor will grow on you. Some pretty good jam and jelly is made from the green fruit.
However, in the past, it was mostly the ripe fruit that was used, the fruit that has matured to a dark red or maroon color, almost like the bark. The ripe fruit may be sticky, and there is typically a thinnish shell covering a hard seed. Collect all you can when the fruit is in season. If you are collecting the sticky variety of fruit (such as A. glauca), be sure to clean off as much of the stems and leaves as possible while collecting; otherwise, you’ll have a difficult task later.
Among the Cahuilla Native Americans of southern California, manzanita was regarded as a primary food source since it could be collected in volume and stored. Though the use of manzanita seems to be nearly a lost art today, it was once considered an important food additive. Typically, manzanita was used as an aspic, a thickener, or a sweetener to other foods. It also makes a pleasant beverage.
Let’s review the way to process manzanita for each of these foods.
Collect the ripe fruit, and pick out any foreign matter, such as leaves or stems, bugs, and so forth.
Wash it all, and let it dry in a colander. I typically put all the berries in a cookie pan and let them then dry in the sun or in the oven at pilot-light temperature.
Next, I put some of the berries in my old fashioned Mexican molcajete, a stone grinder. I grind away at the entire seeds for awhile until I have removed the covering from each fruit and have ground up most of the covering. The actual seed will get ground down a bit, but it is harder and takes more work to reduce to a powder.
Then I put the ground material into a sieve and shake out the fine powder. This fine powder is then added in varying amounts to bread or pastry products. I like to add it to my acorn pancakes, and it both sweetens the dough and gives it a smoothness that’s a bit hard to describe. Well, it’s good. In fact, you can save this fine powder and add it to a lot of dishes. Experiment. Use it wherever you might have used aspic or a thickener, such as in gravy, jellies, or sauces.
According to Linda Sheer, who grew up in rural Kentucky living many of the old ways of storing and processing foods, the manzanita powder can also be added to meat, in much the way that wild berries were added to meat to produce the original pemmican. Again, you’d need to experiment to get the right flavor, but you’d be adding powdered manzanita to a dry meat that has been ground. The manzanita acts as a preservative and flavoring.
Put the coarse meal that was left in the sieve into a pan and cover with water. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Taste just a bit of that water. You’ll find it is terribly sour, but still, there’s that sweet aftertaste. Strain out the coarse meal, and then add an equal amount of water to your sour manzanita water. Also add about a tablespoon of honey for each quart of liquid. You could also add deseeded cactus pulp. Now taste it to see how tolerable it is. Don’t get too concerned about the exact measurements of water or honey; just make it so it tastes good to you. To me, it is just right when the flavor is somewhat like a weak lemonade. It is subtle in flavor, yet uniquely refreshing.
This drink also helps your body to hydrate, and thus, it is good to drink during heat waves or if you’re in the desert. You could also just add a few of the dried fruits into your canteen and take advantage of these hydrating qualities that way.
Another use of this sour liquid is as a vinegar for a wilderness salad dressing. It makes a surprisingly good substitute, especially when you consider all that goes into making regular vinegar. This undiluted manzanita liquid can also be frozen for later use.
The coarse meal is typically discarded after one boiling. However, if it’s a bad year, you could actually get several boilings out of the meal before you need to discard it. Between boilings, you could put the meal into a cooking or pie pan, thin, and allow it to dry out. Do this so you can keep it for later without it going moldy.
Medicinal Uses of Wild Manzanita: The leaves of various manzanita species are also used medicinally. According to Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, the leaves of all species contain arbutin, a glycoside that is broken down to hydroquinone in the urine, which is the reason that manzanita leaf tea has disinfectant qualities. Moore suggets this tea in cases of mild urinary tract infections, chronic kidney inflammations, and water retention. The tea from the leaves also acts as a mild vasoconstrictor for the uterus and therefore can be helpful during painful and heavy menstruation. However, he does not advise its use during pregnancy.
Incidentally, I regard Michael Moore’s books as the best available sources on the medicinal properties of wild plants. He has written several books for various geographical areas.
Some of the Native American tribes in Northern California make an infusion from the manzanita leaves and drink it to cure poison oak rash.
Other Uses: I first became aware of the usefulness of manzanita when I learned about the desert species, a vining, crawling plant known as kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). The leaves of this manzanita species have long been used as a tobacco substitute or added to tobacco mixes. To me, there isn’t a lot of flavor, though I have heard that the leaves need to be slightly fermented to truly bring out the flavor and aroma of this smoke. It does smoke well, and so I enjoy adding it to my non-nicotine smoking mixes.
The beautiful wood of this plant makes it a favorite for crafts projects. It is sometimes used for such items as lamp stands, candleholders, and tobacco pipes.
Hunters in the old days and even today would often take special note of the manzanita patches. This is because the fruit provides food for a wide variety of game including all small game and birds, of course, but also larger animals. In the Angeles National Forest, which constitutes the northern third of Los Angeles County, I have often observed large bear droppings in late summer and fall. Their primary diet had been either manzanita berries or the two varieties of native wild cherries.
Detrimental Properties of Wild Manzanita
We’d appreciate authenticated reports from readers. I was once told that one of the detrimental effects of collecting manzanita berries is that a bear might chase you out of its patches. That’s pretty unlikely, isn’t it?!
Where Wild Manzanita Can Be Found
Several species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) are found throughout the West and Southwest, even though it is commonly associated with Southern California coastal mountains. (There are believed to be at least 43 species of manzanita in California alone.) But you’ll find manzanitas in areas such as the deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Utah, southwestern Colorado, and into Mexico. The range of the uva-ursi plant, perhaps more commonly known as kinnikinnick, is found up the Pacific Coast to Alaska. In fact, the manzanitas have a fairly large range.
Growing Cycle of Wild Manzanita
Manzanitas are perennials. The flowers typically appear through the spring and early summer, depending on how long the winter lasted. The fruits appear in summer and are usually available for picking in August and September.
Lore and Signature
I am vaguely aware of some folklore associating bears with the manzanita plants. We know that bears like the berries, and one species of manzanita is even known as bearberry. Though I may be on thin ice here, the Latin name’s root of arktos suggests a connection between King Arthur and the Big Dipper, at least as far as mythology and lore are concerned. This is just food for thought, so let me know if you discover more.
More from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants
• The Benefits of Wild Edibles
• Guide to Edible Seaweed
• The Health Benefits of Ribwort
• Using and Eating Piñon Pine
• Using and Eating Prickly Pear
Reprinted with permission from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants: Second Edition by Christopher Nyerges and published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition.