Ribbon Bush

My appreciation for ribbon bush is acquired, as one might acquire a taste for fine wine.  It began when I accompanied my husband-to-be into the forest. We were gathering data for his thesis entitled “Taxonomical Investigation of Extant or Disjunct Populations of Pinus ponderosa”.  My prior knowledge of botany and horticulture was nil, and this particular thesis was never completed.  However the excursion itself was my introduction to an endemic shrub that I came to call “ribbon bush”.  The story of how this happened is as intricate as its branches and covers the greater part of my adult life.  I will attempt to convey an abbreviated version.

Led over logs, up ridges, and around boulders I was at first oblivious to the vegetation surrounding me, attempting only to maintain my footing. Holding the end of a tape measure in my right hand, I struggled to collect pinecones with my left hand, and place them into the basket buckled at my waist.  Following along, I appeared more like an adoring student than a research assistant and soon-to-be bride.  Having moved across the country to California, from my original mid-western home, my closest experience to romping through the woods was in my youth as a Girl Scout.  The view from the front porch of my childhood home was of green lawn in all directions, in front of every house in the neighborhood, and dotted only with low formal hedges and small groupings of colorful bedding plants- something akin to the “Emerald City” in The Wizard of Oz.  Conversely, this passion for trees, soil, seeds, and cones was something of a mystery to me.

Simply by virtue of my repeated exposure, I became familiar with numerous scientific names.  Examining leaves through a magnifying lens, identifying pines by sniffing their bark, and toasting pinecones in my oven to scarify the seeds, became frequent activities in those early days, but this was merely the beginning.  There would be other excursions in the natural world, after I was married.  During some of these, the prolific range and familiar form, of a particular shrub demanded my attention.   I encountered it many times over and years later would refer to it as ribbon bush, but in the beginning on one such adventure I asked my husband for the common name of this elegant burgundy branched native.  We were hiking, and while I stayed on the path, he was making his way through the brush, grasping stems and gently plucking tips to carry home for propagating. “This one has a splendid form and the color lends more blue, don’t you think?” he asked, drawing me into the process.  “Kinnickinnick” he said belatedly in answer to my question.

“And the Latin name?” I queried.

“Arctostaphylos uva-ursi”.

Having a fascination for words, I spoke both names aloud, rolling the syllables off my tongue in rhythmic repetition.

In the early seventies we were married.  A few years later we moved to Morro Bay where I found employment and my husband entered Cal-Poly in the field of ornamental horticulture. After one of his labs he coaxed me to join him on a drive up a precarious road that led to a population of Arctostaphylos on Cuesta Ridge.  Once again I marveled at his insistence once we were there, edging his way through and amongst the gnarled shrubs, enamored by their sculpture, and murmuring, as if in conversation with them.  From Cuesta Ridge we drove to Montana de Oro for more plant exploration.  On each excursion I learned a little more.  Unusual branch formations result from flowers terminating the growth of a stem.  Leathery leaves provide protection from seasonal drought, and fire is often a natural phenomenon in a forest of Arctostaphylos.  I was entering horticulture through the back door, so to speak, learning vicariously from my partner by assisting him, and quizzing him on taxonomy. 

In the early part of our marriage we were still backpacking. Together we camped in such places as Mendocino County, Yosemite, and at Saddlebag Lake, where I met Fort Bragg manzanita, pine mat manzanita, and greenleaf manzanita.  I am surprised to have remembered as many plants as I did from our hikes.  By the time I had maneuvered across the scree or managed to reach the opposite side of a ridge, I could barely think of anything beyond blisters, water, and my next meal. Remembering plants, or noticing color and density of vegetation was pertinent only in reference to reaching the end of the trail.  But being married to a plants man elicited in me a certain curiosity coupled with a somewhat reluctant enthusiasm.  

Thus far, what I had absorbed in regards to horticulture was from an adult academic perspective. Not until after our daughter was born, ten years later, did that change.  From the time she was a baby we took her with us on nature walks.  She grew to feel at home in the native chaparral that surrounded our community, and some of her first words described plants.  When she was old enough we went on weekend trips to Figueroa Mountain.  She was sensitive to the environment, and expressed excitement at seeing wild flowers and butterflies, as well as disappointment when she saw a fallen tree.  As a family we kept a journal of our trips up the mountain, recording sightings of wildflowers, as well as deer, coyote, bobcat, and tarantulas.  It was on Figueroa Mountain that she first noticed the late spring and early summer shedding of bark on Arctostaphylos glauca.  Coppery-red strips curling away from the trunk and branches, like red silk ribbons on a Christmas present.  The peeling surface she saw is what prompted her to name the shrub “ribbon bush”.

During my daughter’s childhood, summer fires spread into the manzanita forests.  Of particular interest were fires on Figueroa Mountain and Cuesta Ridge because to us these were familiar areas.  Soon after the first rainstorm, following each of the fires, we drove to those sites.  The character of manzanita with its crooked stems and vibrant bark is captivating, but when ravaged by fire, the remains cast a haunting image across the landscape. 

Parched trunks and charcoal-stemmed silhouettes stood like stark skeletons against a lapis sky, at first misleading to those unfamiliar with their life cycle.  Drawing closer in one setting we found evidence of new growth at the base of their trunks.  In the other site, seeds scarified by fire, had sprouted with winter precipitation. Both the green seedlings and the green stump sprouts gave my daughter hope for a forest restored.

The following winter I returned with my family to Cuesta Ridge.  Reaching the top my husband pulled into a turnabout, and was out of the car and half way down the hillside on foot, as my daughter and I struggled to open the car door against a forty-mile an hour gale, as we muttered to ourselves.  Bundled in bulky wool sweaters we ventured several feet to enjoy the distant view of the valley below, Point Sal, and the morros leading out to sea.  Turning to cross the road we saw the charred forms of manzanita that we had seen a year earlier, but at their bases were dense vigorous seedlings cloaked in blue leaves huddled tightly as if to stay warm.  In voluminous numbers, they rose amongst fringed, ghostly green mats of Carex obispoensis.  Massed popcorn flowers trembled on the nearby hillocks, as if the land were breathing.  Unable to stop shivering, my daughter and I retreated to the car, and were joined shortly thereafter by my husband.  Slowly we jostled in our seats down the narrow pitted forest service road, dodging potholes.

After a few months we planned a summer vacation.  In June we embarked to Oregon to visit friends.  On our way we stopped near Shasta, when my daughter suddenly called out from the back seat of the car.  “Mommy, look!” she said emphatically.  “It’s the ribbon bush.  They have it here too!  Remember when we first saw it on Figueroa Mountain?” 

I looked to the right where she was pointing, and in the distance I saw a stand of them.

“Oh yes, I see them”.  Shrubs of Arctostaphylos patula scattered across a hillside juxtaposed to a clear-cut slope.

“Why would anyone cut them down?” she asked, the lilt in her voice subsiding.

“Actually, I think it may have been the pines that were removed for a timber sale” I said, trying to ease her distress.

She sighed heavily. “Aren’t they beautiful!  Why wouldn’t everyone want to save them all?  I don’t understand.”

“Thankfully, as your father has shown you in the past, the ribbon bush does not give up on life.  Remember the green seedlings and the green stump sprouts we saw after the fire?  The ribbon bush will endure as long as we have wilderness,” I said, but she continued to stare out of the car window pensively as if she hadn’t heard me.

Many years later in spring her father was teaching a class in native plants to landscape architect students.  Once again he was on Cuesta Ridge leading eighteen and nineteen-year-olds on a field trip.  Impressionable and eager, they followed their teacher, as if he were the Pied Piper, down the hill to the manzanita forest.   He strode freely, questioning his charges as to why the grasses were particularly plentiful beneath the trees. The students looked at one another and back at him quizzically with sheepish expressions on their faces.  He then explained that as fog moved through the canopy of the Arctostaphylos, moisture was caught in its leaves and condensed, thereby delivering more water to the grasses directly beneath the trees. Sounds, of students snickering aloud with skepticism, rippled through the group.  Their teacher then stepped beneath a mature tree, and turned to face his class.  Droplets of water sprinkled at first, then poured harder.  Students looked to the sky, their mouths agape, expecting to see rain, but there was none.  They looked at one another, at the sky, to the blood red water streaming down the trunk of the tree, then back to their teacher.  He knelt at the base of the ribbon bush in moisture-laden grass, trousers soaked, and holding in his cupped hands a pool of water.  A teachable moment.

Unlike myself, who came to appreciate the manzanita forest in adulthood and these students who were just beginning to learn about Arctostaphylos, my daughter had grown up with a genuine affection for this landscape.  From the early part of her life she grew to love manzanita…and I have grown to appreciate a child’s perception of…... the “ribbon bush”.