Bearberry Double Talk

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'A very tasteless and insippid fruit'

Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng

plant with bright red berries and small, dark green leaves

© 2000 by James L. Reveal

The botanical designation for this storied miniature shrub is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng.1Arktos is Greek for "bear," and staphyle is Greek for "a bunch of berries." Just for good measure, uva-ursi, the designation for the species, also means "berry-of-bear," Uva-ursi being an early generic name that was rejected by the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus when he established the principles and procedures of modern botanical nomenclature in 1753. His role in the taxonomy of the bearberry is acknowledged by the parenthetical /L./ in the plant's full name. "Spreng." stands for the German botanist Curt Polycarp Joachim Springel (1766-1833), who wrote the first full description of the plant.

Call it what you will

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. But it also has borne a long lexicon of other names: bear's bilberry, bear's grape, raisin d'ours in France. Bear's weed, chokerberry, chipmunk's apple, creashak, crowberry, devil's tobacco, Indian tobacco, hog cranberry, larb, manzanita, mealberry, mealy-plum vine, mountain box, mountain cranberry, mountain laurel, rapper-dandies, redberry, rockberry, sandberry, universe vine, upland cranberry, uvursy, whortleberry, and wild cranberry.2 Herbalists know it best as uva-ursi. Lewis and Clark sometimes called it kinnikinnick, sometimes sacacommis.

Meriwether Lewis heard in the latter name an intimation of a faintly plausible but quite erroneous etymology–"from the circumstance of the Clerks of those trading companies carrying the leaves of this plant in a small bag for the purpose of smokeing." But saccacomis–or sac · comis, sagakomi, segockimac, or segockiniac–were all derived from a Chippewa Indian word for "mixture," the variant spellings, including Clark's Sackacome, representing different journalists' transliterations of the local pronunciations they heard. The Blackfeet Indian name for bearberry is kakahsiin; the Salish call the berries skw lsé. The Pawnee name for the whole plant is nakasis, meaning "little tree."3

Mealy Meals

At Fort Clatsop, on January 25, 1806, Lewis noticed that the fruits and berries eaten by the Indians of that vicinity included "a Scarlet berry about the Size of a Small Cherry," referring to the bearberry. The berries once served as a staple food for Native Americans as well as white settlers. Indians, it is said, cooked them in salmon oil, bear fat or fish eggs, or added them to soups and stews. Boiled, they were sometimes mixed with snow for a wintertime treat.4 Lewis himself, evidently having sampled one, judged it "a very tasteless and insippid fruit," but added that It was reported to taste sweeter after boiling.

Indeed, a fruit so seductively colored, and set off against such a salubrious deep green foliage, ought to taste as good as it looks. Generally speaking, it doesn't. About those pretty berries Lewis was right the first time, although as to the leaves, when dried, crushed, and mixed with tobacco, they added "an agreeable flavor.

On the other hand, black bears, rodents, songbirds and turkeys evidently find the bright berries tasy. Blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus, "tree-loving, inconspicuous") and spruce or Franklin's grouse (Canachites canadensis, "noisemaker, of Canada") seem especially fond of them.5 deer and mountain sheep eat the leaves during fall and winter.

Strong Medicine

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.

The leaves are sometimes used in the tanning of hides.6

Holiday Postscript

In Euro-American culture, bearberry foliage often serves as a Christmas decoration.

Important: The ingestion of some plants can be harmful or even fatal. Experimentation and/or self-medication with wild foods and medicines without advice from a physician or other qualified authority can be dangerous, and therefore is not recommended.

1. The bearberry's Latin name is pronounced arc-toe-STAFF-ee-los oo-va ER-see. The initial L. stands for Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). Spreng. stands for Curt Polykarp Joachim Sprengel (1766–1833), a German professor of medicine and botany. Red osier dogwood is Cornus sericea. Cornus is the Latin name for the cornelian cherry; sericea means silky and refers to the pubescence of the leaves. In the older American literature, this dogwood was also known as Cornus stolonifera.

2. Dictionary of American Regional English (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985– ), s.v. bearberry. CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names (4 vols., New York: CRC Press, 2000), 1:187.

3. Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (1914; enlarged ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska press, 1977), 56.

4. Linda Kershaw, Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies (Renton, Washington: Lone Pine Publishing, 2000), 90–91. Important: Experimentation and/or self-medication with wild foods and medicines, without advice from a physician or other qualified authority, is not recommended. The ingestion of some plants can be harmful or even fatal.

5. John J. Craighead, Frank C. Craighead, Jr., and Ray J. Davis, A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 130.

6. Ibid.