Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

Original Species Paper by Lois Wythe 

Ericacae – Heath family 

(aka Bear Berry, Uva-ursi, Bear’s Grape, Mt. Box, etc.) 

Kinnikinnick, by whatever name it is called, is a native ground-cover plant much beloved by humans, the animals, birds, and even the hoary elfin butterfly, which lays its eggs on the foliage.  Native and prolific in  North Idaho, and admiring both its appearance and catchy name, it was a unanimous choice for the name of our Chapter of the Idaho Native Plant Society. 

It is pronounced KINNY-kin-ICK, or Kinn-ICK-innick, and comes from the aboriginal – most scholars say the Alonquin – meaning “smoking mixture.”  Although the plant was native here, it seems to have been the fur traders’ employees who brought the name west with them.  Its other common name, Bear Berry, comes from its genus ARCTOSTAPHYLOS, from the Greek word for bear – Arktos and staphylos – a bunch of grapes, which its berries resemble.  The species name of “uva-ursi” is apparently from the Latin “uva” (grape) and “ursus” (bear). 

Leaves, Flowers, Fruit:  It’s easy to spot a mat of ground-hugging, bright green, leathery, spoon-shaped evergreen leaves, urn-shaped flowers in spring, and its red berries in the fall.  The bark is papery, and its peels easily. 

Habitat:  Throughout zones 2 thru 9, it grows in low to alpine elevations on sandy, well-drained, exposed sites primarily.  Here in  North Idaho , it is frequently found on the edge of forest clearings.  (In the Arboretum, we have placed it in several different areas where it grows well, but it’s happiest on the dry, sandy edges of the rocky beds near the sidewalk entrance from the parking lot.)  It is a ground covering, mat forming, trailing shrub, usually not more than 6” high.  Loves the sun. 


Food The bright red berries remain on its evergreen branches all winter until they are used as survival food for bears, birds (grouse especially), and other wild animals after other berries are gone.  Domestic cattle avoid the plant.  While nourishing, the berries are mealy and bland, but the Indians often gathered and stored them for winter use when dried.  Sometimes the berries were fried in salmon or bear fat, or even boiled in soups, according to some botanists.  Commonly, both the Indians and later the colonists dried and crushed the leaves, smoking them alone or mixed with tobacco or other leaves – which accounts for the name.  Leaves were also reportedly boiled and used as tea, primarily for medicinal use. 

Medicinal uses:  In traditional herbal medicine, it is the leaves which are important.  Gathered in the fall, the leaves are dried and crushed for storage in air-tight containers, to be made into medicinal tea which healers have used for centuries as a tonic and a diuretic.  Marco Polo learned its uses while in   China  and Europeans have recorded uses of it since the 13th century.  The leaves contain arbutin, a powerful astringent, which is reputed to have an antiseptic effect on the urinary tract and thus accounts for its apparently effective us in treating kidney and bladder infections. 

Other uses Kinnikinnick is also rich in tannins which are used in the tanning of leather.  An ash-colored dye is also said to be obtained from this plant. 

Heavily wildcrafted in many parts of the country for sale to botanical firms, some states now list is as rare, endangered, or protected. 

Home landscape use:  Kinnikinnick can be transplanted from the wild, but it is difficult because of its root system and it doesn’t always “take.”  It is recommended that home gardeners obtain container-grown plants which will adapt better to garden soils.  It is a wonderful ground cover, but it is important that its habitat needs are met for maximum success – dry, acid, sandy, sunny areas preferred.  Try edges of your beds or borders where your soil may not be so well amended and there is more sun, or steep (especially South) slopes.  Container grown plants should be planted in spring or fall.  NEVER FERTILIZE.  Once established, Kinnikinnick is easily propagated by layering. 

The shiny green mats are a great asset in our gardens.  While the plant is evergreen, many of the leaves turn a most attractive green-bronze when our cold weather arrives.  Beg your nurseryman to stock this native love.  There are also many very interesting cultivars for your landscape use such as “Woods Red” and several other varieties bred for their denser foliage.  Try it.........  You’ll like it. 

Note:  The Museum may have plants available at spring plant sales.  Watch for the date. 

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