Bearberry (Arctostaphylos rubra; Arctostaphylos alpina).
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
Bearberry & Kinnikinnick
Kinnikinnick: Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.
Bearberry: Arctostaphylos rubra, Arctostaphylos alpina.
Other Names: uva-ursi; chipmunk’s apples; mealberry; tinnick, arbutus (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi); red bear’s grape (Arctostaphylos rubra); black bear’s grapes; alpine bear grapes (Arctostaphylos alpina).
Heath Family: Ericaceae.
Habitat and Range: Arctostaphylos species favor dry, sandy and rocky slopes, and heaths. Kinnikinnick (A. uva-ursi) ranges from northeast Alaska and the northern Yukon to California. Red bearberry (A.rubra) is distributed from northern Alaska and the Yukon to British Columbia. Black bearberry (A. alpina) inhabits Alaska and the Yukon.
Numerous other species are distributed in our region, especially in California. Manzanita, A. columbiana, from British Columbia to California, is a showy shrub to small tree popular with ornamental gardeners.
Kinnikinnick: Arctostaphylos uva–ursi: a: low, trailing, mat–like shrub with long flexible branches; b: fruits are dull red, dry and mealy; c: flowers are pinkish, urn–shaped with 10 stamens; d: leaves are leathery, dark green and slightly hairy on top, pale below; e: branches 8 to 20 inches long.
Black Bearberry: Arctostaphylos alpina: f: leaves are fringed with regular hairs; g: fruits are black.
Red Bearberry: Arctostaphylos rubra: h: both black and red bearberry have white to greenish–white flowers; i: leaves have a wrinkled appearance. Growth to 6 inches high is common to A. alpina and A. rubra. A. rubra has red fruits.
Kinnikinnick and Bearberries: Herbs for Men, Women and Bears: Kinnikinnick’s botanical name, Arctostaphylos, stems from arctos (bear) and staphyle (bunch of grapes). Bears are fond of these fruits, a fact that is emphasized again by the specific name uva-ursi, meaning grape of the bear. Other species aren’t quite so redundant–A. rubra means red bear grapes and A. alpinus translates as alpine or mountain bear grapes. Kinnikinnick and bearberry fruits are relished by bears as well as spruce hens; mountain sheep and moose often browse the plants.
Harvest Calendar: Spring to fall: leaves of uva-ursi. Since these are evergreen, they also can be harvested in winter for smoking tobacco. Late summer: ripe fruits.
Food Use: Kinnikinnick and bearberry fruits aren’t very palatable or popular raw. Cooked fruits, however, do yield a more acceptable dish. Try simmering fruits in water until soft, grinding them in a food mill, sweetening the pulp to taste, and serving as a mock cranberry sauce. Simmer with honey, cinnamon, and cloves for mock apple sauce.
For a tangy wilderness ‘lemonade’, simmer two cups fruits in two cups water with one–half cup honey for thirty minutes. Let the mixture sit one hour. Then strain, chill, and enjoy.
Anores Jones, writing in The Kotzebue Basin, says kinnikinnick fruits are stored in oil by Kotzebue locals. When the seeds are soft and the fruits are juicy and sweet, they are ready for consumption.
Medicinal Use: A. uva-ursi is the species used for medicinal purposes; it contains ten percent arbutin and substantial ericolin, substances that hydrolize in stomach fluids to form the urinary antiseptics, hydroquinolone and methyhydroquinone. The tea is traditionally used in treatment of kidney and bladder infections, kidney stones, bed–wetting, and urinary tract disorders. In Hygieia, Parvati recommends boiling a heaping teaspoon herb in two cups water for thirty minutes and drinking one-half cup every four hours “…for excessive menstruation, gonorrhea, ulceration of the cervix, and other female troubles.” (See CAUTION following).
Micheal Moore, in Medical Plants of the Mountain West, suggests mothers boil one–quarter cup uva-ursi leaves in a gallon of water for twenty minutes and use this mixture in sitz baths after childbirth to reduce inflammation and prevent infection. The bath should be taken every morning for three to four days. Mom’s Herbal Bath Blend, recipe following, is also very appropriate for new mothers. Other external applications for kinnikinnick decoctions are as wash for skin irritation and rashes. Add leaves to herbal bath for suppurating skin conditions. Grease–soaked Arctostaphylos fruits are used as a laxative by Dena’ina Athabascans. Alaskan homesteaders used to soak berry leaves in brandy and then brew into a tea for minor health complaints.
CAUTION: A. uva–ursi is NOT recommended for internal use by pregnant women; herbalist Michael Moore warns that large quantities could decrease circulation to the fetus. Herbal Medications says that A. uva-ursi “…relatively safe, and no symptoms are expected in quantities generally available.” Taken in large or frequent quantities, however, it can cause gastrointestinal upset, nausea, and central nervous system depression. For chronic urinary and kidney problems, A. uva–ursi is safest blended with soothing, demulcent herbs such as Iceland moss and comfrey. Be aware that internal consumption of A. uva–ursi tea often results in the urine become alkaline and bright green; the urinary antiseptic hydroquinolone is the cause of this harmless reaction.
Cosmetic Use: Cold A.uva-ursi tea makes a good splash for closing the pores after a facial steam. Being antiseptic, the herb is well suited for antibacterial liniments.
Historical Use: The Klallam Indian name, kinnikinnick, translates as ‘smoking mixture’; this mixture was smoked during ceremonies by various native peoples. Canadian Indians dubbed the plant sagack–homi; the French, reports Haskin in Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast, punned the name sac–a–commis as Hudson’s Bay clerks (commis) liked to carry pouches of this herb for smoking. Fur traders commonly blended kinnikinnick with tobacco to extend supplies.
Terry Domico, in Wild Harvest, says that there are many stories about drunken sprees produced by inhaling the smoke of kinnikinnick blended with bunchberry and salal leaves. After a personal test, Domico reported that “smoking dried kinnikinnick leaves had no effect on me, but it did smell like the downwind side of a smoky campfire.”
Other: Those seeking a more earthy application may wish to experiment with Arctostaphylos plants as natural dyes; color varies from camel to gray or blue–green depending on plant parts, mordant, and species used.
The herbs also make attractive garden ornamentals. Leaves of A. rubra and alpina are radiant in fall; in miniature, they offer autumn foliage as stunning as any New England hardwood forest. Kinnikinnick, by contrast, is quite drab it remains green all year, a fact appreciated more in the white of winter than in the color–competitiveness of fall. It, too, is cultivated as an ornamental, and often planted on sandy slopes, highway cuts, and barren soils to check erosion. Transplant dormant roots in spring, or skink a flowerpot filled with sandy soil near an established patch. After the herb roots itself, cut it free and transplant to the desired area.
Mom’s Herbal Bath Blend
Based on a recipe from Better Home Birth by Yvonne Watkins
1 ounce kinnikinnick leaves
1 ounce comfrey
1 ounce shepherd’s purse
1 whole bulb fresh garlic
1/2 cup sea salt
2 gallons water
Simmer herbs in 1 gallon water for 30 minutes. Strain, reserving fluids. Add remaining gallon water to herbs and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, combining fluids. Add 2 gallons strained fluids to bath water. Note: Watkins recommends this bath be taken shortly after childbirth for at least 30 minutes, the water should be about hip level, and comfortably warm, not overly hot. She directed the new mother to “lie back, spread your legs and swoosh the healing waters up inside the birth canal.” The baby should be included in the bath; Watkins says this “will start the healing process of the umbilical cord stump, and it may drop off as early as 3 days.”