• Manzanitas are not filled with fire popping sap

    by  • September 6, 2013 • Uncategorized

    The Highly Valued Manzanita

    Manzanitas are typical and beautiful Chaparral plants in the Sierra foothills.  They, and the chaparral as a whole, have long been here in California before we so how can we think it is good or bad?  My thought is that manzanita is not any more flammable or less flammable than any other plant.  It just is.

    Beautiful Manzanita, about which my mother told me long ago while out camping.  ‘A man would pay $300 dollars for a 3 foot long straight piece but we must never cut them down in the wild,’ she said!  I knew not why then, but from then on, I revered the manzanita shrubs.

    Peeling Manzanita branch

    Peeling Manzanita branch

    Living creatures

    While visiting a friend here in the Oakhurst/Yosemite area before we bought our own place, I went for a walk amongst his forest of manzanita.  It was October and the thick sinewy trunks and branches were peeling.  I stood still and caught a sound..did I?  A crinkling, softly crackling sound. Could it be the actual sound of the peeling that occurs this time of year?  Impulsively, I asked my no nonsense and country-wise friend about it and without a beat, he said  ‘Sure, why not?  They are living things…’

    I was stunned at the simplicity of his answer.  Not one to philosophize, I knew he meant exactly what he said.

    Fire watch

    Looking around our place, when we first arrived, I was delighted to see many, many manzanita I remembered from our camping trips right here on the place and mourned over each small one that had to be removed for the house pad. Many had to be removed also for fire prevention….those that were within ten feet away from the oaks and pines.  Ladder  fuel, I was told, and how could I argue?  We had dared to move our home here next to the forest and meant to get along with the Nature here while still protecting ourselves and our home.  I did do a lot of reading about fire danger and the realities and found scientific, not political studies on the effects of fire on chaparral.  Some facts are in this previous post: Fire and Manzanita Myths:

    According to Neil McDougald, Coarsegold Resource Conservation District Director, “The concept of fireproof’ plants is essentially a myth for the Sierra Foothills. Almost all plants will burn given the right conditions. Referring to a plant as “firesafe” means that it tends not to be a significant fuel source by itself.    Certain plants may be a poor fuel source because they don’t contain a lot of woody material, or they tend to grow in low densities, or their chemical composition actually resists heat and combustion.”

    There, I found second by second comparisons of how each chaparral plant, native and non native, would ignite. Second by second?  Why, if a fire were hot enough, anything would burn, the locals wisely say.  Get good insurance, our friends said.  Living here would be a trade off….tremendous natural beauty, peace and lots of quiet in exchange for a lack of the security many feel when surrounded by people, concrete, fire services nearby and civilization in general.

    What to do:

    The best thing to do was to prevent fire from jumping quickly to your home from nearby trees, make your property assessable to firefighters and clear brush 100 feet around your house.  Ladder fuel, or small bushes within ten feet of large trees should be cleared.

    It is important to clear 100 feet of defensible space around your home, and yes, Manzanita can act as a ladder fuel, in other words, if left too close to taller trees, fire can jump from the ground up, using medium sized plants as ‘ladders.’  Manzanita left alone or in clumps is fine if they’re not too close to the house or any other trees. They are as normally fire resistant or not resistant as any other plant, tree or shrub on your place.

    Unfortunately, this is how our property was ‘cleared’ to ready it for sale:

    This is how our place was 'bulldozer-cleared'...everything pushed into a mound

    This is how our place was ‘bulldozer-cleared’…everything pushed into a mound

    Because, there were left large mounds of brush, pushed to the sides and bottom of our property, it all had to be carefully burned during the drizzles of our first late Fall season.  A huge project it was! We still have one elephant sized mound of sun whitened manzanita branches just on the other side of our property within 100 feet of the house.  How they managed to mound it up beyond the wire fenced property line, I don’t know.  Future projects…

    Our property cleared of ladder fuel but most trees

    Our property cleared of ladder fuel and the manzanita around most trees was removed 10 feet

    The real tragedy of it all

    You may think the tragedy is the loss of manzanita and the Chaparral is blazing fire, but that’s not what I mean here.  People’s thoughts and viewpoints once adopted and hard to change is the real tragedy.  There is a widely spread belief held by many local people of our community that manzanita contains flammable sap which when exposed to the slightest spark, would ignite in a flash of explosive fire.

    Gardeners have mentioned to me that whole properties have been cleared of it, to my dismay. My heart would sink each time one of the customers in the nursery where I once worked would state that they had removed all the natives and were looking for ‘suitable plants that would be ‘fire-safe.’

    Cleared chapparal from a foothill property

    Cleared chaparral from a foothill property

    This conversation would normally be held after I pointed out our native California section of the nursery.  The homeowner would shake their heads and say, “Oh, no!  We just got rid of all our manzanita!”  No native wildflowers, no native birds or insects can be sustained on this type of cleared ‘backyard. And truly …how silly to replace the natives with pruned shrubs like this in our lovely foothill community:

    From 'Front yard landscaping 'Ideas''

    From online ‘Front yard landscaping ‘Ideas”

    I’m not saying that we’ve done everything perfectly when planning our landscape, but we’ve done the best we can to balance preservation of the native existing plants and maintaining a fire safe home.  The two photos below are how we’ve managed our landscape. Even firefighters tell us a well maintained landscape that is irrigated close to your home, is less flammable than many neglected planted and wild areas.


    Native, but a bit groomed...the outer ring of land around our home

    Native, but a bit groomed…the outer ring of land around our home


    Native and Mediterraneans,  but groomed....the middle 'ring' of irrigated plants in the garden

    Native and Mediterraneans, but groomed….the middle ‘ring’ of irrigated plants in the garden…with a guest!


    We were left with a large field between the forest and our house

    We were left with a large field between the forest and our house,…a natural fire barrier


    Tarweed,...also not fire-poppin'!

    Tarweed,…also not fire-poppin’! This however will be mowed within 100 feet from the house.

    My solution has been to establish these three ‘rings’ of watering zones, to limb up trees and mow near our home.  This is how we live along with the beautiful chaparral.

     More: Fire and Manzanita Myths  

    So You Think Fire Is A Bad Thing…?  Sierra Online News

    ‘Sweet Vagrant’  Tarweed


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.