A Manzanita Lost and Found

The Franciscan manzanita, unseen in the wild for eight decades, made headlines around the country when it was found.

by Bart O'Brien

“I garnered it ghoulishly in a gunnysack” said the famous California botanist Lester Rowntree of her late night procurement of one of the last wild specimens of the San Francisco manzanita (Arctostaphylos franciscana) from the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco in 1947.

The cemetery was developed for housing and commercial ventures. Although the human remains were moved south to cemeteries in Colma, the Franciscan manzanita was pushed into extinction in the wild.

Almost 70 years later, Caltrans began the multi-million dollar Doyle Drive Replacement Project of the 101 Freeway just south of the Golden Gate Bridge in October 2009. The larger trees and shrubs in the project area had been cut down and removed in advance of the construction, and exposed a sprawling, low-growing manzanita. Botanist Daniel Gluesenkamp took notice. Soon thereafter, botanists, Caltrans officials and government staff confirmed that the manzanita was indeed a new wild individual of the Franciscan manzanita, and made plans to propagate and relocate the specimen. Three months later the plant was transplanted to the San Francisco Presidio in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Ten days after its rediscovery in 2009, conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for an emergency listing of the species as endangered. The petition was denied—species that are thought to be extinct in the wild are surprisingly not covered by the Endangered Species Act. However, in the Federal Register of September 8, 2011, the USFWS published a 12-month Petition Finding and Proposed Listing of Arctostaphylos franciscana as endangered. Final action on this proposed rule is expected sometime in late 2012.

In Cultivation

The respected botanist, Alice Eastwood, described the Franciscan manzanita in 1905. All known wild populations of the plant were known to grow on serpentine rock outcrops and soils—though plants in cultivation do not require such conditions.

Franciscan manzanitas have been in cultivation in Californian botanic gardens since at least the late 1930s, with the oldest known collection growing at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

There is confusion regarding the precise origin of many of the Franciscan manzanitas in cultivation today. Some are clearly direct clones of Lester Rowntree’s 1947 collection. Others can be traced to James Roof of Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley; Louis Edmunds of Native Plant Nursery in Danville; Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco; the University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Each have shared seeds, cuttings and plants of manzanitas from at least the 1930s and onward.

Lester Rowntree’s 1947 collection was whisked away to her coastal garden in the Carmel Highlands of Monterey County where it thrived for decades—until at least the early 1970s when James Roof of Regional Parks Botanic Garden (RPBG) visited and collected a rooted branch of the plant for RPBG. It was planted in RPBG in January 1971. Roof (and others) later considered this plant to be a hybrid between Arctostaphylos franciscana and another unknown manzanita, and in 1983 the clone was given the cultivar name Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Rowntree’ to distinguish it from RPBG’s other collections of Franciscan manzanita. (Note: this plant is not to be confused with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden cultivar, Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Rowntree’, a hybrid of Arctostaphylos obispoensis and an unknown manzanita, that was named and introduced in 1982.) Roof also had earlier obtained plants from the Laurel Hill Cemetery and these were planted in RPBG in April 1947.

In 1940, RSABG staff first collected vegetative material of the Laurel Hill plants to grow as documented living collections of the Franciscan manzanita. These, and later seed collections, were successfully grown for as long as 30 years in Claremont, but overall this species tends to be rather short-lived in a hot interior climate.

This fall, RSABG was given a first generation cutting-grown plant from the 2009-discovered Doyle Drive specimen. The newcomer is being cared for in the RSABG greenhouses by nursery staff. The specimen and cutting-grown progeny will later be transplanted to the living collection at the Garden hopefully complete with endangered plant identifying tags.

Franciscan Manzanita
Arctostaphylos franciscana
Franciscan manzanitas typically grow about 12 inches tall and spread by rooting branches to form masses from 4 to 6 feet (or more) wide. The pretty white to pink-blushed urn-shaped flowers are produced in small terminal clusters that appear from as early as January to as late as April. Plants in Southern California gardens should be grown in well-drained soils in partial afternoon shade in hot inland areas, while those growing near the coast may tolerate full sun. Pruning is rarely necessary.