Bearberry

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

Common Name: Bearberry

  • Matted, sprawling, evergreen shrub.
  • Purplish-red fruit.
  • Flowers are a nodding, bell-shape and form compact clusters.
  • Leaves are oblong, evergreen and leathery in texture.

Native or Invasive:  Native shrub

Characteristics: The bearberry shrub, can usually be found lying down (prostrate) and looks like a tangled, woody vine as the plant forms mats up to 39 inches wide. The branching stems can grow up to about 20 inches long. Bearberry is especially common in northern regions and becomes more restricted to the Great Lakes shores in the southern portion of its range. It is considered circumboreal, meaning it can be found throughout the northern regions of the world.

Habitat: Grows in sandy dunes, in sandy and gravelly areas on beaches above the high water mark, in rocky areas and on limestone pavements.

Fun Fact: The berries were rubbed on the insides of baskets to help waterproof them. They can be eaten fresh, dried or mixed with fish eggs or cranberries, although most modern-day testers consider them inedible. There have been recent reports that bears do eat the berries when other, more palatable food is not available.

Ethnobotanical Uses: Bearberry was long a major food for Native American and First Nation peoples. The berries were mixed with grease, such as boiled hooves or bear grease, to use as a salve for rashes and sores. Infusions of the berries were made into poultices for sprained backs or made into a drink for coughs and colds; wet leaves were applied to wounds for relief; the leaves were burned to keep evil spirits away; dried leaves were smoked to cure headaches and used in ceremonies. Roots were smoked to attract game and stems were mixed with blueberry stems to aid pregnant women.

Adapted from Guide to Great Lakes Coastal Plants, by Ellen Elliott Weatherbee, University of Michigan Press.