Did you ever wonder what bears have for lunch in the boreal forests of the Arctic and Subarctic? Bearberry is often on the menu in the northern regions of North American, Europe and Asia. The history of bearberries is fascinating, since it's a plant long used in homeopathic and folk medicine. For more information about bearberry plants through time, read on.
Bearberry Plants through Time
Bearberry's scientific name is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, and it's a low-growing member of the heath family, sometimes called kinnikinnick. Essentially a prostrate ground cover, bearberry shrubs are evergreen and offer flowers in springtime. The woody stems on these plants can grow to 5 or 6 feet long (1.5-1.8 m.) and produce a thick, wide matt. The little flowers look like narrow bells and can be white, pink or pink tipped. They develop into edible red berries, mealy to humans but delicious to bears. In fact, the species name "uva-ursi" means grape of the bear. Currently, gardeners use these shrubs as evergreen groundcover. The leaves take on an attractive golden hue in autumn. When you start talking about the uses of bearberry plants throughout history, you'll find that they have long been used in homeopathic medicine. From the Middle Ages, the herbals mention Uva Ursi as a reliable diuretic for urinary infection. By the early 1800s, it was a staple of herbal medicine in London. The history of bearberries in North America started in Canada. First Nations traditionally used bearberry roots to make a tea to treat persistent coughs. It was also used to slow excessive menstrual bleeding. They also made medicines from the stems that were used by women to prevent miscarriage, to assist recovery after childbirth or to induce menstruation. A drink made from the evergreen leaves was thought to cure bladder and kidney problems. Today, the plant is used less for homeopathic medicine than it was earlier in bearberry history. You can find bearberry leaves are in herbal teas available in commerce. They are suggested for use as a diuretic and to treat infections of the bladder, urethra, and kidney.
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Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.
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