Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is a plant species of the genus Arctostaphylos widely distributed across circumboreal regions of the subarctic Northern Hemisphere. Kinnikinnick (First Nations for "smoking mixture") is a common name in Canada and the United States. It is one of several related species referred to as bearberry.
Etymology and common names
The genus name of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi comes from the Greek words arctos (meaning bear) and staphyle (meaning "bunch of grapes") in reference to the fruits which form grape-like clusters. In the wild, the fruits are commonly eaten by bears. The specific epithet, uva-ursi, comes from the Latin words uva (meaning grape) and ursus (bear), reflected by the bearberry nickname.
The common name, kinnikinnick, is an Algonquin word meaning "smoking mixture". Native Americans and early pioneers smoked the dried uva-ursi leaves and bark alone or mixed with other herbs, tobacco or dried dogwood bark in pipes. Numerous common names exist, depending on region, such as mealberry, sandberry, mountain-box, fox-plum, hog-crawberry, and barren myrtle.
- in Europe, from Iceland and North Cape, Norway south to southern Spain (Sierra Nevada); central Italy (Apennines) and northern Greece (Pindus mountains);
- in Asia from arctic Siberia south to Turkey, the Caucasus, the Levant and the Himalaya;
- in North America from arctic Alaska, Canada and Greenland, south to California, north coast, central High Sierra Nevada (above Convict Lake, Mono County, California), Central Coast, California, San Francisco Bay Area, to New Mexico in the Rocky Mountains; and the Appalachian Mountains in the northeast United States. It is prevalent across all regions of British Columbia and Alberta. The plant is rare or endangered in several states of the Midwestern United States.
The leaves are shiny, small, and feel thick and stiff. They are alternately arranged on the stems. Undersides of leaves are lighter green than on the tops. New stems can be red if the plant is in full sun, but are green in shadier areas. Older stems are brown. In spring, they have white or pink flowers.
Wild stands of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi can be dense, with heights rarely taller than 6 inches. Erect branching twigs emerge from long flexible prostrate stems, which are produced by single roots. The trailing stems will layer, sending out small roots periodically. The finely textured velvety branches are initially white to pale green, becoming smooth and red-brown with maturity. The small solitary three-scaled buds are dark brown.
The simple leaves of this broadleaf evergreen are alternately arranged on branches. Each leaf is held by a twisted leaf stalk, vertically. The leathery dark green leaves are an inch long and have rounded tips tapering back to the base. In fall, the leaves begin changing from a dark green to a reddish-green to purple, becoming pale on the underside.
Terminal clusters of small urn-shaped flowers bloom from May to June. The flowers are white to pink, and bear round, fleshy or mealy, bright red to pink fruits called drupes. The smooth, glossy skinned fruits range from 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch (6 to 13 mm) in diameter. The fruit persist on the plant into early winter. The fruits are bittersweet when raw, but sweeter when boiled and dried. Fruits are edible for humans, but are generally considered to be unpalatable. Each drupe contains 1 to 5 hard seeds, which need to be scarified and stratified prior to germination to reduce the seed coat and break embryo dormancy. There is an average of 40,900 cleaned seeds per pound. It is a fire-tolerant species and may be a seedbanking species.
Bears and other animals eat the berries.
- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi subsp. uva-ursi. Common bearberry; circumpolar arctic and subarctic, and in mountains further south.
- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi subsp. adenotricha. Central high Sierra Nevada.
- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi subsp. coactilis. North coastal California, central coast California, San Francisco Bay Area.
- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi subsp. cratericola (J. D. Smith) P. V. Wells. Guatemala bearberry, endemic to Guatemala at very high altitudes (3000–4000 m).
- Arctostaphylos uva-ursi subsp. longifoliosa. Various reports from Canada, U.S.A. May be the same as adenotricha or coactilis.
The plant contains diverse phytochemicals, including ursolic acid, tannic acid, gallic acid, some essential oils and resin, hydroquinones (mainly arbutin, up to 17%), tannins (up to 15%), phenolic glycosides and flavonoids. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi leaves contain arbutin, which metabolizes to form hydroquinone, a potential liver toxin.
Dried bearberry leaves are the main component in many traditional North American Native smoking mixes, known collectively as "kinnikinnick" (Algonquin for "smoking mixture") used especially among western First Nations, often including other herbs and sometimes tobacco.
Teas and extracts of the leaves have been used in traditional medicine of First Nations people over centuries as urinary tract antiseptics, diuretics, and laxatives. In herbalism, leaf tea is used to treat urinary tract inflammation. Though thought to be an astringent or cure for sexually transmitted diseases, as of 2017, there was no high-quality evidence from clinical research that such treatments are effective or safe.
Precautions and adverse effects
One review indicated that ingestion of large doses can cause allergic reactions, with nausea and seizures, as a potential emergency condition. Preliminary studies indicate that arbutin may be toxic when ingested in high doses. Uva ursi may cause adverse effects in people with liver or kidney disease, or pregnant and breastfeeding women.
There are several cultivars that are propagated for use as ornamental plants. It is an attractive year-round evergreen groundcover for gardens, and is useful for controlling erosion on hillsides and slopes due to its deep roots. It is tolerant of sun and dry soils, and is thus common groundcover in urban areas, in naturalized areas, and in native plant or rock gardens.
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The name Arctostaphylos is from Greek: arctos = bear, staphylos = bunch of grapes or berries; hence bearberry, pertaining redundantly to A. uva-ursi (Latin: uva = berry, ursi = of the bear).
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