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Manzanita translates from Spanish into “little apple."  But the Manzanita tree is only loosely related to the apple, and also the madrone tree.  It’s originally native to California, and generally grows between the inland mountain ranges and the ocean, from British Columbia  south into Mexico. Manzanita is a common name for many species of the genus Arctostaphylos.

There are almost 100 varieties of Manzanita.  It grows slowly in inhospitable areas. One variety struggles to become a twisted, two-foot-tall tree on bitterly windswept coastal cliffs.  Another variety is a prickly long-armed, short trunked 20-foot-tall hanger-on to the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

The larger Manzanita species are strikingly beautiful, with branches and bark streaked with vivid red, deep brown, and bleached white colors, and occasional white flowers.  Some species sport reflective leaves, that appeared luminescent in the moonlight. Some Manzanitas have berries, whose tea is a folk remedy for poison ivy. Merchants often use its curving  branches as mobiles or in displays, or sell it for bird cage perches.

The Manzanita often grows only ¼ inch in trunk diameter per year. That meant that a 50-year-old tree might have a one-foot-wide trunk.  Its wood is hard and dense and durable, and when sanded enough, yields a brilliant red grain. It dulls chain saws, and if burned, warps fireplace grates.

After fires, manzanita often takes over whole meadows. Its wood contains volatile chemicals that produce toxic stormwater runoff, poisoning its competition  Then manzanita forms dense thickets studded with its sharp hard branches; Nature is red not only of tooth and claw, but also of bark.

Decades ago, my buddies and I retrieved large, dead manzanitas from above 3000 feet elevation in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains, an hour south of Yosemite National Park.  We sawed, sandblasted, and shaped those into flowing tree-stump table bases for redwood burl slabs. We rejoiced to find a 1 or 2 foot wide trunk. We rarely cut down a live manzanita, and never a redwood.

Rather than create finely designed furniture with routed edges and fluted legs, we offered  barely-finished tables, which we alleged preserved the natural character of the wood, and I even misused the term “baroque” to excuse the unfinished character of our “furniture.”

Once, while we cruised narrow gravel BLM roads on the rain-starved east slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, we spotted a gigantic dead Manzanita on its side dozens of feet below the road, apparently uprooted by winter storms. But it was practically teetering on a cliff.  We scampered down the slope and stood beside it, in awe.  Even on its side, it came up to our eyes, meaning its trunk was about 6 feet thick.  The Manzanita had to have been several hundred years old. They’re known to live 150 years or more.

We were young and strong, and had rope and chains, and a custom-modified ‘59 Chevy pick-up with an Oldsmobile race-car 394 engine.  But that trunk was so huge that we broke every rope trying to tow it up the slope.  When we fastened the chain and floored that Oldsmobile engine, the tree trembled and began to move, but it was so huge, its weight started to pull the truck down the cliff, instead of the truck pulling the tree up to the road. Finally, we gave up.  

A Manzanita in Chico, north of Sacramento, is currently a Official California Large Tree with a ten-foot circumference, but the tree we left behind was probably just as large.

I left the Manzanita business behind a year or two later.  It cost me $25 to prepare a Manzanita table base, for which I received $25.  I bought a bigger truck and tried to make it up on volume, but failed.

But I kept two of the larger Manzanita table bases for myself.  After my marriage, one of those stumps had to live outdoors.  For further details on how that transpired, please see the scene in “How Harry met Sally,” regarding the fate of Jess’ wagon wheel table.

Yet after enduring about eighty feet of rain over 20 years that would have disintegrated lesser wood, that particular stump, although it is weathered and dark now, still props up a fine redwood burl in my backyard.

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Originally posted to Backyard Science on Tue Jul 09, 2013 at 05:49 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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