Bearberries are three species of dwarf shrubs in the genus Arctostaphylos.
Other common names used for this fruit are kinnikinick, mealberry, sandberry and hog cranberry.
The name “bearberry” for the plant derives from the edible fruit which is a favorite food of bears.
Bearberry comes from its genus Arctostaphylos, from the Greek word for bear – Arktos and staphylos – a bunch of grapes, which its berries resemble.
Folk tales suggest Marco Polo thought the Chinese were using it as a diuretic. Bearberry leaves are used in traditional medicine in parts of Europe, and are officially classified as a phytomedicine.
Bearberry was first documented in The Physicians of Myddfai, a 13th-century Welsh herbal.
Native Americans used bearberry leaves with tobacco and other herbs in religious ceremonies, both as a smudge (type of incense used for clearing the air of negativity) or smoked in a sacred pipe to carry the smoker’s prayers to the Great Spirit.
One of the commonest of its common names in North America is the Algonquian (Delaware Indian) word kinnikinnick, meaning “mixture.” Equally familiar in various parts of its English-speaking habitats is bearberry, which first appeared in print around 1625.
Bearberries occurring widely throughout the northern reaches of Europe, Asia, and North America in rocky and sandy woods and in open areas.
This hardy plant typically grow along sandy and rocky areas including shorelines, slopes, ridges, hilltops and in coniferous and mixed woods. Bearberries grows at various levels from sea level to sub-alpine.
This dwarf shrub can survive from 25 to 50 years in the wild.
It has woody stems that are often 1.5 to 1.8 meters (5 to 6 feet) long.
Roots develop from the stem, and the plant spreads, forming a broad, massive ground cover.
The leaves are evergreen, remaining green for 1–3 years before falling. They 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.
The flowers, which open early in the spring, may be white, pink, or pink-tipped in colour; the flowers are in the shape of a narrow-mouthed bell and are borne in small clusters at the ends of the twigs.
The smooth, glossy skinned fruit range from 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch (6 to 13 mm) in diameter. The fruit will persist on the plant into early winter. 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 0,45 kilograms (1 pound).
You can eat the berries of bearberry, but you won’t taste much, as they are granular and tasteless, or mealy, hence the nickname mealberry.
The health benefits of bearberries include treat arthritis, boost the immune system, improve metabolism, relieve headache pain, treat bladder problems like a UTI, speed up healing, skin care, reduce inflammation, aid in weight loss and protect the gut.
Bearberry should not be consumed by pregnant women and breast-feeding women. It should also not be used for treating children and patients suffering from a kidney disease.
The leaves of the bearberry, which contain two glucosides plus tannic and gallic acid, have been strong medicine since at least the thirteenth century, and perhaps long before that. They once were used for their potent astringent and diuretic effects, and are still employed by some herbalists, although with rigorous limitations.
Bearberry is used as an ingredient in skin care products – as it has astringent and disinfectant properties – and in food supplements. Bearberry is also used to make teas.
Bearberry is salt-tolerant, so it can be used in gardens near the coast and in cold urban areas where the roads are salted. It can be used to attract hummingbirds.