Paper by Lois Wythe
– Heath family
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
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
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 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
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.
Back to Species Information
Back to Home