Pages Navigation Menu

Plants from the Ground Up

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – Brilliant Bearberry!

Winter is upon us and I’ve rediscovered how much I love to see Arctostaphylos uva-ursi with its brilliant-red berries covered in a dusting of snow! Bearberry is found in many countries all around the world. Here in the U.S. we find it from Alaska to New England and California to Virginia. In some parts of the world it has become endangered, while other areas find it growing in abundance. It thrives in the cool, rocky soils of more northern areas, but is a poor choice for areas with hot, humid summers.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘(Great Lakes)’ KINNIKINNICK

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘(Great Lakes)’

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi has many common names, you may know it as Pinemat Manzanita for its appearance carpeting the clearings of pine forests. Others call it Kinnikinnick, an Algonquin word for ‘smoking mixture’. Kinnikinnick was smoked either alone or used as part of a smoking mixture by both Native Americans and early pioneers. If I had to choose my favorite common name, it would be Bearberry! Arctostaphylos comes from the Greek ‘arcto’ meaning bear and ‘staphyle’ meaning bunch of grapes. Its species uva-ursi comes from the Latin ‘uva’ meaning grape and ‘ursus’ meaning bear. As you may have already guessed this is a common food of bears.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Big Bear’ Kinnikinnick

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Big Bear’ Kinnikinnick

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is usually found growing in exposed sites such as forest clearings and on rocky slopes. It thrives in acidic, dryish, well-drained soils that are infertile and in fact does not want to be fertilized. Full sun is required for best performance. Bearberries form dense evergreen mats six inches to a foot high and six to eight feet wide with dark green paddle-shaped leaves that are alternately arranged along trailing branches. As the reddish-brown stems age on this woody groundcover the bark begins to peel into attractive cinnamon colored flakes. In April-May Bearberry is covered in small yet showy urn-shaped flowers of either white or soft pink. Butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to the nectar (A. uva-ursi is also the larval food for these butterflies: Hoary Elfin, Brown Elfin and the Freija Fritillary). These flowers become the brilliant-red fruits (drupes) that are so decorative, especially against the bronzy color that the foliage turns in winter. The berries appear in August-September, but since they do not rot they persist into winter providing much needed food for bears, birds and small rodents. The berries are also edible for humans, however, they are not exactly pleasing. In 1806 Merriwether Lewis described them as “tasteless and insipid”.

Bearberry is effective as a large scale ground cover and it is very useful in rock gardens and embankments. It is also at home in the herb garden as it has long been used medicinally as an antiseptic, astringent and diuretic. Since it is extremely high in tannins, it has also been used in the tanning of hides. The berries are also used in Christmas floral arrangements and wreaths.

Some notable cultivars include:

‘Emerald Carpet’ A. edmundsii is worth mentioning here, though not an actual uva-ursi. This Kinnikinnick has deep-green foliage and shell-pink flowers. It grows a bit taller than uva-ursi, up to 18 inches tall and though not as cold-tolerant, it is able to tolerate shadier sites. Zone8

Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Emerald Carpet’

Arctostaphylos edmundsii ‘Emerald Carpet’

‘Massachusetts’ – This east coast selection features loads of pink flowers and small bright-red berries. It is somewhat more tolerant of moister sites. Zone5

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’

‘Radiant’ – Named for its glowing radiant-red berries that are produced in abundance. The flowers are pale-pink and its foliage is a lighter green than others. Zone5

Arcrostaphylos uva-ursi is generally propagated by cuttings. Depending on the cultivar, it is hardy to USDA zones 5-9.

For more photos and information, see Arctostaphylos at the Forestfarm Store.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *