White flower buds, each no bigger than a poppy seed, hang in clusters from delicate red stems on two manzanita bushes that will be taller than I am in a few years. You would have to be very close to see these buds: Some barely peek out amidst the foliage. But in a few weeks these white dots will become miniature pale pink bells, welcoming California native butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds—in the middle of winter. A blanket of Point Reyes manzanitas lies nearby, each year spreading their branches a little bit farther. Their flowers have their own pink hue and have no place to hide. These groundcover manzanitas cling closely to rocks and stones that mimic their natural habitat. So these tiny bells welcome the lowest flying of my little garden visitors.
It’s early for these delicate flowers to be forming. Perhaps they’ve been fooled by this winter’s unseasonably warm and sunny weather. Every year, though, I am surprised to discover the first of the nascent bells. They are very early harbingers of spring, and their presence invariably brings a smile. Later, it will be their garden neighbors: a large ceanothus and much smaller penstemons—both species then covered in dazzling purple and lavender-blue flowers—that will trumpet spring’s arrival.
This garden’s manzanitas host more than butterflies, bees, and birds, particularly at this time of year. The textured, dark green of the manzanita leaves is dappled with bright red, like ornaments on a holiday tree. If you didn’t know better, you’d think these were brilliant flower buds, maturing just in time for a red and green holiday celebration. But, no. These are leaf galls filled with aphids—aphids that infect only manzanitas. Prune away these infested leaves and the plant will develop tender new leaves for remaining aphids to call home and multiply.
A couple of years ago, when I first learned that these red growths were home to leaf-gall aphids, I was determined to remove the infested plants and to treat the soil so that no aphids remained. In the interim, I unwittingly pruned away the galls and marveled at how quickly new ones appeared—as if removing all those encapsulated insects had been inconsequential to their total population. I prepared to unearth the plants and their residents just as soon as the heat of summer had passed. And then I had a change of perspective.
As difficult as it was for me to fathom, manzanitas don’t seem to care that they are the exclusive residence of these leaf-gall aphids and not just a food source for those who fly in, drink, and fly away. These plants continue to thrive. This is not a symbiotic relationship. The aphids and galls are of no benefit to the manzanitas. But I take this as an inspiration: We can give, and there’s no harm done if the giving is not returned.
By early summer, the red ornamentation disappears. My manzanitas get down to the serious business of maintaining their greenery during the dry months. They are tough. They don’t need irrigated water but seem to appreciate a showery spray on the hottest late summer and early autumn days.
Now I prune after the last of the bright red galls is gone. I don’t want to think where the aphids have gone; I’m not that far along in my acceptance of nature’s ways.
But I now look forward to my garden’s holiday decorations that arrive with the first rains of November: bright red galls on deep green foliage. I am comforted that these ornaments will be safely laid away before summer arrives so that they can return when next we celebrate winter’s wonderland.