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Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

The bearberry shrub received its common name because bears like to eat the fruits. In Latin, uva means "grape or berry" and ursi means "bear". This plant is a small shrub that covers the ground and ranges from 5-30 cm in height. The evergreen leaves have a shiny wax coating with hairs and the stem has a thick bark. With net-like venation, the leaves classify the bearberry plant as a dicot with two cotyledons within its seeds. These adaptations help protect this extreme plant from the harsh arctic conditions. Low growing plants are able to avoid wind chills, while the hairs keep bearberry plants warm.

The common bearberry produces a red berry-like fruit and five-pedaled white/pink flowers in the Spring. The plant grows throughout the year and is able to survive in nearly any condition that the elements can throw at them. It is able to grow in nutrient-poor soils or sands, making the bearberry a true survivor plant.

The white/red/pink flowers contain a superior ovary, 10 stamens, 5 sepals, a carpel and are all surrounded by 5-lobed fused perigynous pedals. The flower is considered to be regular with its symmetry and complete with both male/female parts, making the bearberry a perfect flower.

Bearberry relies on bears and other berry-eaters to aid in spreading bearberries and seeds to other parts of the world. Each fruit contains five dicot seeds that can pass through animal's digestive tracts in order to grow from their waste.

Where in the world?

Bearberry plants are found in mountainous, arctic and subarctic areas of the world. Often growing in higher latitudes, the plant can also be found at high altitudes for southern regions.
- ASIA: Siberia, Caucasus & Himalayan mountains
- EUROPE: Iceland, Norway, Sierra Nevada (Spain), Apennines (Italy)
- NA: Alaska, Canada, Rocky Mountains, Appalachian Mountains


There are dozens of similar plants under the genus Arctostaphylos, but here are a few close relatives to the Bearberry.

Alpine Bearberry, A. alpina
La Cruz Manzanita, A. cruzenis
Baker's Manzanita, A. bakeri

Human Use

The leaves of the bearberry shrub contains glycoside arbutin. This chemical acts as a
diuretic and can aid individuals with bladdar, kidney or urinary infections. The roots can be ground up and put into teabags, producing a tea that can ease coughs or sore throats. The fumes from the tea can also eliminate nasal congestion. Although there have been proven benefits to bearberry leaves, they are not widely used for medicinal purposes.

Simply, the bright red berries of a bearberry shrub can be cooked up and eaten with other foods. Having litte to no taste, it is more appealing to wildlife. It would be unwise to consume any other parts of the plant because of its high tannin content. In large doses, it can nausea, green urine, fever or vomiting.

The bearberry contains a biomolecule called tannin. Tannin can be extracted from the leaves and concentrated into a liquid used as protective coating. Many extremophiles produce this chemical, as it aids in their resilience against moisture and the elements. Tannin is used to protect and tan different leathers to be manufactured into consumer products like saddles, jackets or boots.

Dye is another function of the bearberry shrub and is used within the textile industry. The leaves or berries are dehydrated and crushed into a fine powder. The leaves will produce a yellow-brown dye and the berries will produce a grey-brown dye. Used for clothing or in paints, dyes can be extracted from many plants around the world.

Mixed and smoked with tobacco, bearberry leaves can produce some psychotropic effects. Causing light-headedness and a high feeling, although it is not commonly used as a drug and has no addictive effects.

Controls Erosion:
Because it is a low growing and wide spreading shrub, bearberry is often used as a mechanism for restoring dunes or landscapes from wind erosion. The plant is able to survive with minimal nutrients and can easily grow in sands or dirt. With strong roots, the bearberry plant will grab the soil that it covers and hold it together in a way that will slow water or wind erosion.


Fun Fact

The bearberry shrub is often one of the first plants to populate previously burned forests or grasslands. Because they are able to survive off of minimal resources, the bearberry can be found covering the ash of a forest fire or on top of volcanic materials. This could help to benefit global warming, as the plant can easily be grown and reduce the amount of carbon dioxyde in the air.