Bearberry plants (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are low-growing, evergreen, and perennial. Although they are shrubs, they seldom grow more than a foot tall. The berries of this plant are edible and have medicinal value. In fact, the berries are survival food. A recipe is given near the end of this article.
There are actually three species of bearberries, all with the same properties and similar appearance. Uva-ursi is common bearberry and is used here as representative of the three species. It is also sometimes called kinnickinick.
As the name implies, they are sometimes eaten by bears, too. Because these plants form dense mats, they are sometimes used as ground cover. In the wild, the patches of bearberry occasionally look like they were intentionally grown for exactly that effect.
This plant has alternate leaves that are rounded and without teeth. Each leaf is fleshy, roughly oval, and are usually between one inch and two inches in length. The color is dark green.
The flowers are almost a quarter of an inch in length and are urn-shaped. They are normally in clusters of three to five or so. The plant blooms from April to June.
The berries are red to dark red when ripe and are about a half inch in size or less.
Bearberries grow in northern Europe and northern Asia, Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, California, the Rockies states, and in Atlantic states. They have been grown elsewhere, however, they are cold tolerant and loving plants.
Bearberry as food
Bearberries are edible raw or cooked and they can be an important survival food. American Indian tribes used them in sauces with fish, venison, elk, and with bear meat. They’ve also been dried for later use in breads, cakes, and in spoon bread.
When they are raw, they aren’t of exceptional flavor. However, they can be combined with other fruits and can make a very satisfying jelly or jam. The following is an example of Bearberry preserves that is quite good. For a sauce to go with venison or fish, omit the pectin.
- 2 quarts bearberries, rinsed and without stems
- Sugar (see instructions for amount of sugar)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 package pectin (about 3 ounces)
Put the berries in a pot and cook over medium heat until soft; about 5-10 minutes. Crush the berries, then run them through a sieve or cheesecloth to remove the seeds. Retain as much of the pulp as possible.
Return the juice and pulp to the pot, adding one cup of sugar for every cup of juice and pulp. Add the lemon juice, mix thoroughly, and heat to a boil.
Boil for a minute or two, then stir in the pectin. Allow the preserves to cool and set.
Bearberries are usually used medicinally in teas, extracts, or tinctures. The berries are aromatic, disinfectant, diuretic, astringent, mildly sedative, and they have antiseptic properties.
The tea, extract or tincture is used to treat diabetes, arthritis, illnesses of the urinary tract including infections, diarrhea, excessive menstruation, gallstones, kidney stones, kidney infections, indigestion, haemorrhoids, rheumatism, water retention, fever, prostate illnesses, yeast infections, and as treatment and prevention of infections from E. coli and Staph.
The berries contain a large amount of tannic acid, so they and the crushed leaves have been used to treat skin ulcerations, cuts, and punctures. Some American Indian tribes have also taken the tea to help with back pain.
Because of the tannic acid, this plant has been used to tan leather. Interestingly, the crushed berries have also been spread over the insides of baskets and allowed to dry to make the baskets waterproof.
Bearberries are good to get to know. They have good value as a survival food and they make pleasant preserves. Most importantly, they are medicinal powerhouses.