If I had to represent California with a single plant genus, I couldn't choose a tree. California's trees are the defining features of ecosystems -- the gray pine belt, the red fir belt, the redwood coast, the oak-studded grasslands -- but none embraces the whole diversity of the state.
But across most of California, at most elevations and in a huge range of ecosystem types, there's some kind of Arctostaphylos -- a manzanita.
But of course it's more closely related to blueberries than to apples.
Wherever it appears, manzanita is so peculiar, so unlike anything around it, and so adept at revealing its own inner ilfe, that it always draws my attention. And while they extend down into Mexico and creep in prostrate forms through the Pacific Northwest toward the arctic, the big in-your-face manzanita shrub -- with its warmly colored bark, its constantly twisting branches, and its stiff exclamatory leaves -- is mostly a creature of California.
Like the divaricating shrubs of New Zealand, manzanita branches seem to bend at every growth bud, yielding an endlessly wavy structure. Like some New Zealanders, too, its leaves are sparse enough to create interior rooms that draw the eye.
The bark is red in age, closer to butterscotch in youth -- colors so specific and insistent that one wonders about their evolutionary purpose.
They are often adept at filling wind-sculpted gaps in rock, completing a larger geometric shape.
And of course, they die magnificently, a screaming silver-white that recalls New Caledonian ferns. (Is my taste in plants too operatic, and if so, why don't I like opera more than I do?)
Indeed, manzanita is never more striking than when partly-dead. Often, the living tissue is a sinuous strip on just one side of the branch. It can look like a fluid coating, not part of the branch at all.
Of course, it's true of all branches and trunks that life is just at the surface, not within. But few plants are quite so adept at illustrating the point.
Never have I seen a plant that engages so intricately with its own dead remains.