Kinnickinnick, or bearberry, which grows throughout the forests of the West, often goes unnoticed because it is not a showy plant. It is one of my favorites because each spring, when the arrival of warm weather seems utterly improbable, kinnickinnick’s bright red berries and tiny evergreen leaves are the first to emerge from under the snow. Its resilience always reassures me the earth will come back to life.
Originally, kinnickinnick was a trading term eastern tribes gave to all plants that could be smoked. The term moved westward with the settlers and soon became the name for this little member of the Heath Family, whose leaves and bark can be smoked.
Kinnickinnick’s berries, which stay on the plant through the winter, are edible but not very palatable. Regardless, tribes mixed the berries into soups or ground them up and moistened them with bear grease or salmon oil. They also popped them like popcorn. Dried berries were used in rattles.
The scientific name for kinnickinnick is Arctostaphylos urva-ursi. The leaves, which are referred to medicinally as “urva ursi”, are used in teas and tinctures to heal the urinary tract of infections and to ease arthritis.
In the wild, it’s an important colonizer species in compromised soils. So for those of you who want a hardy, native ground cover, kinnickinnick is your friend! It takes abuse well, is easy to transplant, and it spreads readily. And beyond all that, kinnickinnick is just a fun word to say!