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Species Profile: Kinnickinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Species Profile: Kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

By Hayley Weyers (Northland College)

 

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Drawing by Hayley Weyers.

This member of the Ericaceae family has had a long cultural history across the North American continent. Known scientifically as Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, kinnickinnick leaves have traditionally been dried and smoked in mixtures with a variety of other plants. These included Labrador tea, wild sage, red osier dogwood, and tobacco in different variations and ratios depending on the purpose or event.

The berries of kinnickinnick are reported to be high in Vitamin C, and they have actually been eaten for generations by most central and northern native groups of Canada and the United States. They are best harvested in the fall and then prepared by being fried in oil or boiled in soups with meat or fish. However, it seems to depend who you ask about this nutritious little berry. Some field guides, for instance, will describe it as being inedible and will even go so far as to state the taste and texture to be “like a mouthful of lint.” That being said, eating the fruit raw is not recommended.

Bears, however, thrive on eating kinnickinnick berries raw. So much so in fact, that another dialectic common name for the kinnickinnick plant is bearberry. Bears will eat the berries en masse in autumn. This creates a numbing effect on their intestines. Then they usually follow this with a large meal of some kind of rough-edged Carex or sedge, which they cannot digest. This cellulose-rich feast passes right through them, effectively dragging out any tapeworms or parasites they may have lingering in their digestive systems.

A. uva-ursi also has an interesting mycological connection. Many leaves can be found covered in purple-brown spots. These are from a fungus called Chrysomyxa arctostaphyli. This fungus splits its lifecycle between kinnickinnick leaves and spruce trees. This results in a thick, matted, yellowy bunch of branches and twigs referred to colloquially as a Witches’ Broom. The fungus needs to divide its life cycle between those two species or it cannot survive.

Ultimately, kinnickinnick is often found in somewhat poor, sandy soils. It prefers to be dry, and can easily thrive on exposed rocky slopes and other kinds of disturbance clearings. They grow from high to low elevations, and are considered a very common and widespread plant for the British Columbia as well as much of the northern North American continent.

kinnicinik map

Range map via United States Department of Agriculture at http://plants.usda.gov/java/factsheet.

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