I could not decide whether to title this post “kinnikinnick” or “common bearberry”. This delightful evergreen with bright red berries is known by both names. I use both, but decided kinnikinnick was a more interesting word.
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a mat-forming member of the heath family and is a type of manzanita. Common and widespread, it can be found in sandy, well-drained sites or dry forest clearings throughout the northern third of North America and all the states from the Rocky Mountains west.
Long, flexible, rooting kinnikinnick branches trail over the ground with their tips sticking upward. Oval to spoon-shaped leaves alternate on the brownish red twigs. The leathery leaves are dark green above and lighter green beneath. The bright red berries are edible and stay on the plant well into winter, making them an excellent survival food.
Native Americans ate the fruit raw, boiled or stewed and ground into a powder. I often nibble a few while hiking, but never bother to collect the plentiful berries. They are mealy, bland in taste and have hard seeds.
The entire kinnikinnick plant is high in tannic acid and was used as an astringent by indigenous people. The leaves were also used as a diuretic and to treat kidney disease. Even today herbalists employ kinnikinnick for a variety of ailments.
The word “kinnikinnick” is Algonquin for “smoking mixture”. The dry leaves of this plant were smoked after native people made contact with the earliest explorers and settlers, however there is little evidence that they smoked kinnikinnick prior to that time. Once commercial tobacco was available, kinnikinnick leaves were used to extend the product.
The genus name, Arctostaphylos, is from the Greek and translates as ” bear berry”.
These kinnikinnick plants were growing along the Tsunami Trail at Bullocks Beach in Bandon OR.
Kinnikinnick or bearberry, this wonderful little shrub adds a splash of color to a fall or winter hike.