Bearberry, aka kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Bearberry, kinnikinnic and the Arapaho

This handsome little flower is common bearberry, aka kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). I’ve noticed it blooming in the Front Range recently, but look close, because the flowers are pretty small.

As part of Arctostaphylos, common bearberry is a manzanita, and is sometimes called pinemat manzanita. Arctostaphylos means “bunch of bear grapes” in Greek, and uva-ursi means the same in Latin. As the name implies, bears love ’em. So do gardeners – they are planted as a hardy, slow-creeping groundcover. It is also circumpolar, which means that it grows on multiple continents, circling the world. This species is found in North America, Europe and Asia, usually in mountainous areas. Look for them in gravelly or stoney areas. In Colorado I’ve seen them in the montane and up into the spruce/fir forests.

The other common name, kinnikinnic, hints at another use – by American Indians for smoking, both ceremonial and social. Kinnikinnic is an Algonquian word meaning “mixture,” specifically a smoking mixture. Different tribes use different species for their mixtures. Before the coming of Euro-Americans, the Arapaho didn’t have tobacco, so they used this plant in their mixtures, along with other plants – willow bark, mountain laurel and so on. The first Euro-American prospectors introduced tobacco to the Arapaho, and they quickly adopted it, usually mixing it with kinnikinnic. Most sources show that dried kinnikinnic leaves were used for smoking, but Oliver Toll, in his 1914 trek with a group of Arapaho across what would become Rocky Mountain National Park, says those on the trip mixed a plug of tobacco with kinnikinnic bark.

Bearberry produces small, bright-red berries. They remain all through the fall and into the winter. Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, stated that the local tribe (the Clatsop, related to the Chinook tribe) used the berries for food without preparation, but he called them “a very tasteless and insippid fruit“.

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