Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – Bearberry

BearberryArctostaphylos uva-ursi

Arctostaphylos = ark-to-sta-fil-os, from Gr. arctos (a bear) and staphyles (a bunch of grapes or “berries”);

uva-ursi = oo-va-ur-see, L. for “berries-Bear’s”;

Identification: Bearberry is a trailing evergreen shrub often forming mats 50 – 100 cm wide. The flowers are pale pink to white, urn-shaped in terminal racemes. The leaves are oval, leathery and evergreen. The branches tend to lose their rusty red bark in shreds. It is quite similar to some Vaccinium species.

Distribution & Habitat: It is usually found in well-drained habitat, such as open woodland, bench land and gravel terraces.

Preparation & Uses: The berries are mealy and almost tasteless when raw, but quite palatable when cooked. Two related species (A. alpina and A. rubra) have better-tasting berries that are good raw and better cooked. Some people find them a little acidic or bitter. Because of its bitter taste, some people chew both berries and leaves to prevent thirst. It stimulates the flow of saliva.

A good cider can be made from these berries. First scald them for a few minutes until the seeds are soft and then crush them to pulp. To this, add equal parts of water, let settle one hour, then strain. It really needs no sugar, but this can be added to taste.

Bearberry (also called uva-ursi by herbalists) is listed as diuretic, astringent, soothing, tonic and nephritic. Uva-ursi has a specific healing action upon the genitourinary organs. It is especially good in cases of gravel or ulceration of the kidneys or bladder. It will soothe, strengthen and tone the mucous membrane of the urinary passage. Uva-ursi has quite the reputation as a solvent for uronic calculi deposits. In chronic inflammation of the bladder and kidneys, it has no equal. It stimulates kidney activity and has an antiseptic effect on mucous membranes (due to arbutin 5-18%).

Bearberry is a mild vasoconstrictor to the endometrium of the uterus and is therefore useful to alleviate painful menstruation. Large quantities should therefore be avoided during pregnancy.

The leaves are powerfully astringent (due to 6 – 8% tannic acid) making a great sitz bath after childbirth. Because of the high tannin level it has often been used to tan hides. This can also be used to advantage when hiking, especially before the first hike of the season or with new boots. To toughen up the feet, simply soak your feet in a strong decoction for one hour the night before hiking. This will help you avoid blisters.

Another common name for bearberry is Kinnickinnick, which is a bit of a misnomer. Kinnickinnick means smoking mixture. Uva ursi, though often a major ingredient of smoking mixtures, is usually just one component of the mixture. Kinnickinnick components can vary from tribe to tribe. Here is a typical formula:

Equal parts:
– Bearberry leaf
– Labrador Tea leaf (picked in spring when orange underneath)
– Red Osier Dogwood inner bark
– Wormwood leaf (Artemisia frigida)
– Chokecherry inner bark
– occasionally inner bark of Alder (Alnus crispa)