Bearberry / Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Description

Low, creeping, evergreen herb … red berries … waxy oval leaves. Take a look:

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) - Closeup of berries and leaves
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), closeup of berries and leaves … The berries are edible, but rather bland and mealy. They are best when added to other foods that have a richer flavor texture.

Ecology

Bearberry is a “pioneer” plant. This means that when a mature, stable ecosystem is disturbed (such as when a timber company comes in and destroys a forest), bearberry will be one of the first species to move in and establish itself.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) - Growing in a mat on a rock
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) – Growing in a creeping mat on a rock (the dark green groundcover with the red berries)

Edible Uses

Berries can be eaten, but are dry, mealy, and bland. They aren’t bad though — try mixing them in as nutritious “filler” with one of your stews.

Medicinal Uses

Bearberry is one of the most effective herbal treatments for urinary tract infections, and was used by numerous Native American tribes for this purpose. Chemically, a compound known as hydroquinone (which is present in high amounts in the leaves of bearberry) is responsible. Hydroquinone is strongly antiseptic and antibacterial — and is especially effective against all of the small group (~5 to be precise) of organisms which are normally responsible for causing urinary tract infections.

The hydroquinone in bearberry, however, is contained within a compound called arbutin, which is essentially hydroquinine with some attached sugars. In order for the hydroquinone to act on your body, you need alkaline urine to ensure that once the bonds attaching the sugars to the hydroquinone have been broken, that it will remain a free molecule that can float around in there and kill those nasty infectious little beasties … That is, the hydroquinine will still detach from the sugars if your urine is not alkaline, but it will quickly combine with other chemical compounds, and pass out of your system without doing anything.

How to get alkaline urine? Simple: consume a lot of basic (as in high pH) food/drinks such as milk, cheese, etc. And avoid foods/drinks that contain large amounts of vitamin C and acids — no coffee, orange juice, or key lime pie for you!

Like any other strong medicine, bearberry has a few cautions. First off, pregnant women and children should not be treated with bearberry. It has the effect of reducing bloodflow to the fetus of pregnant women, and is somewhat harsh on the liver, which young kids have a hard time handling. Also, it should not be used for longer than a week — if it still burns when you tinkle after a week of it … you should probably try something else!

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) - Closeup of leaves and stem
The medicinal part of bearberry is the leaves, which contain hydroquinone – highly effective at treating urinary tract infections.

Other Uses

This plant was smoked by a large number of Native American tribes along with or instead of tobacco and other smoking mixtures.

Also used to make yellow-red dye …

Commonly planted as an attractive & edible groundcover in yards and gardens.

Nomenclature

The name means “bear grapes”, derived from Greek arkto (bear) and staphyle (grape). [[wiki]]

Often called uva-ursi, from the Latin uva, “grape, berry of the vine”, ursi, “bear”, i.e. “bear’s grape”. [[wikipedia]]

References / Bibliography

* Plants for a Future — Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
*
Wikipedia — Bearberry
*
Wikipedia — Arctostaphylos

* Botanical.com — Bearberry

* Effects of Bearberry — Uva-ursi for urinary tract infections