Arctospathylos uva-ursi & Vaccinium vitis-idaea

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Bearberry

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

  • Name also: Kinnikinnik
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial dwarf shrub. Mat-forming.
  • Height: 5–15 cm (2–6 in.), branches limp, up to 100 cm (40 in.) long. Stem woody.
  • Flower: Corolla urceolate (pitcher-shaped), light red–almost white, 5–6 mm (0.2–0.24 in.) long, fused, shallowly 5-lobed. Sepals 5, reddish. Stamens 10. Pistil a fused carpel. Short-stalked, nodding flowers borne in terminal racemes.
  • Leaves: Alternate, short-stalked, overwintering. Blade obovate, 1–3 cm (0.4–1.2 in.) long, with entire margins, leathery, hard, glabrous, shiny, underside green, lacking spots, clear net-like leaf venation.
  • Fruit: Red, shiny, compact, dry and flowery, tasteless berry.
  • Habitat: Dry forest heaths, sand and gravel embankments, cuttings, rapakivi granite outcrops, sometimes on fells. Also an ornamental.
  • Flowering time: May–June.

Bearberry is most abundant in esker and rapakivi granite, where it can form stands up to an acre wide and live for 60–80 years. There is not really any room for any other plants in these dense stands. Bearberry’s fruit tastes good to many animals – and especially birds spread the seeds to new habitats. Bearberry is usually connected to bears because when they wake up from their winter sleep they head off to the moors to eat them, as has been noted by hunters and other naturalists all over the northern hemisphere. Bearberry’s scientific name is from ancient Greek and loosely means ‘stout-stemmed bear grapes’.

Bearberries look like lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), although they are in no way related. Lingonberry’s stems are erect: bearberry is limply creeping and only the tips of the stems are slightly ascending. Bearberry’s leaves are narrower and gradually tapering towards the base. The underside is clearly net-veined but lacks the dark spots that are typical of lingonberry. The flowers are rarely seen, however, as the species is the first forest berry to flower – it can already bloom in April in sunny forest heaths. Bearberry’s fruit is red like lingonberry, but its dry, floury and virtually tasteless flesh means that it doesn’t compete with lingonberry as a food. It is not poisonous, however, and it is actually more important than lingonberry as a medicinal herb. It has also been used to tan leather and as a dye.

Other species from the same family

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