Manzanita Tea (and other wild edibles)

Arctostaphylos spp. I love manzanita. For some reason, I associate it with wild California. With prehistoric* California (and you know my preoccupation with the prehistoric 😉 ). It sounds silly, but manzanita has a special place in my consciousness. Maybe it was just seeing it so often on my mountain hikes, its beautiful, smooth red bark and lightly fragrant flowers, then one day trying a few berries** and finding them agreeable. I include a couple of references to it in Opalescence. One is when Tom makes a walking stick from a Manzanita branch:

“He found a possible replacement for the split madrone. Manzanita was also attractively smooth-barked and ruddy colored, perhaps more so, and it appeared to be very hard. Problem was, unlike madrone, it was usually twisted and crooked. Finally, he found one that was passably linear. He took it with the handsaw and fashioned it, while they sat under an avocado tree in an open space.”

The other is when he makes some manzanita berry tea.

“It was a shrub with thick leaves and delicate pink-white bell-shaped flowers. Manzanita. Others, already pollinated, had grown red berries. Irresistibly, he picked one and popped it into his mouth. Without chewing, he rolled it around upon his tongue. An apple cider tang, light and tart, touched his taste buds. He bit down gently and found a seed within. The tangy portion was the thin outer shell around it. Tom got an idea and picked bunches of them. He carried them back, retrieved his collapsible pot, then sat on the grass and began to crack the skins from the berries. They flaked off readily. These he put in the pot. When he had enough, Tom added fresh water from the stream. Then, clearing a small site and gathering some stones, he started a fire and placed the pot on top of the stones. In short order the water began to boil. He removed the pot and set it on the ground to cool.”

Manzanita tea. Yes, it is an exotic, yet delicious alternative to the usual fare found on store shelves. I’ve often wondered why we humans have for so long insisted on limiting ourselves to the same relatively few edibles compared to the potentially hundreds of thousands to millions of edibles that actually exist in the plant world.

“Of more than 50,000 [known] edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, with three, rice, maize and wheat – making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4,000 million people.” says the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Note: Brackets mine.

Who knows what benefits exotics not yet explored could bring to the human diet (just one reason we need to stop the clear-cutting of forests). Or as Karstens says when advising Julie before her launch into that beautiful Miocene world, “You are not solely looking for the relatives of those few plants that humanity grew up on. No, you will be sampling everything…. Just think, we could be adding a whole library of nutritious and delicious foods to our diet!”

Anyway, as I said before, Manzanita tea is one of those little known exotics that you can find in Wild Edible Plants books but not much else. Yet it makes a delicious apple cider-like tea (some also claim it as a poison oak rash remedy as well as having other medcinal qualities). It was used as a tea by native americans too.

“In making cider the berries, sometimes after a brief boiling, were reduced to a coarse meal by grinding. The meal was placed in a winnowing basket set over a water-tight cooking basket. Water was then poured over it, a little at a time, percolating through until all the flavor was gone from the meal. This was ascertained by tasting. Finer particles of the meal passed into the lower basket, so the liquid was decanted. It was then ready to drink. It would keep without souring from two to four days. It was used as a refreshing drink, particularly in summer and at social gatherings.” See also Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast

The “berry” is actually a hard, segmented seed with a thin outer shell around it which is the tasty part. Some pics:

The flowers pre-berry (courtesy of

The flowers pre-berry (courtesy of

Berries on bush. Courtesy of

Berries on bush. Courtesy of

And here’s our Manzanita Tea! Enjoy!

Courtesy of my daughter.

Courtesy of my daughter

*”The genus evolution was likely centered in the far western part of North America, where fossil ancestors dating to the Middle Miocene are apparent.” Encyclopedia Of Life

Note 1: I like mine with sweetener. Note 2: Sorry, when I collected these berries I forgot to take my own pictures of the shrub.

** A word of caution: There is evidently some potential risk to consuming manzanita in large doses or over a long period of time, and for pregnant women, so if you are worried, enjoy this as an occassional drink. Also, never sample a wild plant unless you are sure it is not potentially toxic.


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