Bearberry, UVA-URSI

January 21, 2012 by staff 

Bearberry, UVA-URSI, Bearberries are three species of dwarf shrubs in the genus Arctostaphylos. Unlike the other species of Arctostaphylos (see Manzanita), they are adapted to Arctic and sub-Arctic climates, and have a circumpolar distribution in northern North America, Asia and Europe, one with a small highly disjunctive population in Central America.
The name bearberry derives from the edible fruit said to be consumed by bears. The fruit, also called bearberries, are edible and sometimes gathered for food. The leaves of the plant are used in herbal medicine.

Alpine Bearberry – A. alpina (L.) Spreng (syn. Arctous alpinus (L.) Niedenzu). A procumbent shrub 10-30 centimetres (3.9-12 in) high. Leaves not winter green, but dead leaves persist on stems for several years. Berries dark purple to black. Distribution: circumpolar, at high latitudes, from Scotland east across Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland; southern limits in Europe in the Pyrenees and the Alps, in Asia to the Altay Mountains, and in North America to British Columbia in the west, and Maine and New Hampshire in the United States in the east.
Red Bearberry – A. rubra (Rehd. & Wilson) Fernald (syn. Arctous rubra (Rehder and E.H. Wilson) Nakai; Arctous alpinus var. ruber Rehd. and Wilson). A procumbent shrub 10-30 centimetres (3.9-12 in) high. Leaves deciduous, falling in autumn to leave bare stems. Berries red. Distribution: in the mountains of Sichuan, southwestern China north and east to eastern Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada east to northern Quebec.
Common Bearberry – A. uva-ursi (L.) Spreng.
Other recorded old English common names include Arberry, Bear’s Grape, Crowberry, Foxberry, Hog Cranberry, Kinnikinnick, Mealberry, Mountain Box, Mountain Cranberry, Mountain Tobacco, Sandberry, Upland Cranberry, Uva-ursi.

The plant contains arbutin, ursolic acid, tannic acid, gallic acid, some essential oil and resin, hydroquinones (mainly arbutin, up to 17%), tannins (up to 15%), phenolic glycosides and flavonoids.

The leaves are picked any time during the summer and dried for use in infusions, liquid extracts, medicinal tea bags and tablets believed to be potentially effective in folk medicine.

Bearberry is relatively safe, although large doses may cause nausea, green urine, bluish-grey skin, vomiting, fever, chills, severe back pain, ringing in the ears (some people can withstand up to 20g and others show signs of poisoning after just 1g); take no more than 7-10 days at a time.

It should not be used by people who are pregnant, breast feeding, nor in the treatment of children (under 12) and patients with kidney disease. Drug interactions have been recorded with diuretics, as well as drugs that make the urine acidic (such as ascorbic acid and Urex).

Despite these extensive applications in folk medicine, there is no scientific evidence that any of them are effective.

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