Marco Polo (1254–1324) discovered this herb’s uses when he traveled to China, and Kublai Khan learned of it during his invasions. By the 13th century, European herbalists recognized uva-ursi as an important healing herb.
Native to Europe, Asia, and North America, this low-growing evergreen shrub produces sour red berries that are a favorite of bears—explaining both the common name bearberry and species name (“bear’s grape” in Latin). The Native American name kinnikinnick (meaning “that which is mixed”) refers to the practice of combining the plant’s leaves with tobacco and other plants for smoking. Various groups of Native American people ate kinnikinnick berries fresh, dried, or mixed with other edibles.
Common Names: Bearberry, Kinnikinnick, Uva-ursi
Description: Creeping evergreen shrub with short, dark stems and long fibrous roots; small, glossy, undivided leaves; pink bell-shaped flowers; small, round, glossy red berries
Hardiness: To Zone 2
Flowering: April and May
Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and berries
Range/Habitat: Throughout the Northern Hemisphere; dry, rocky areas
Native Americans made a poultice of the plant’s leaves, stems, and other parts for treating skin sores and burns, back pain, and back sprains. Some tribes also drank an infusion of the leaves, stems, and berries for back pain, possibly caused by kidney problems.
This herb has long been used to treat urinary tract infections and can reduce inflammation. The leaves contain astringent tannins, as well as the antibacterial compounds hydroquinone and arbutin. Hydroquinone can cause liver damage and other problems, however.
Caution: Pregnant or nursing women and children should not take uva-ursi, nor should those with high blood pressure or certain other conditions.
With glossy evergreen foliage and pink bell-shaped flowers, uva-ursi is a lovely groundcover along a walkway, around a patio, or in a container. Look for varieties specially bred for their bright berries or dense foliage.
An extract of uvi-ursi is used commercially in skin lightening agents. It has replaced pure hydroquinone, which has fallen out of favor for this purpose and is being evaluated as a possible carcinogen. Uvi-ursi can also be used to make a green dye for alum- or iron-mordanted wool or a light brown dye for unmordanted wool.
How to grow it
Uva-ursi (often sold as bearberry) needs little care in your garden other than watering when conditions are very dry. Occasionally pinch back the young plants to encourage branching and compact growth. Propagate new plants by layering one of the plant’s runners, or start new plants from green stem cuttings.