General: evergreen, trailing shrub with trailing and rooting stems sometimes forming mats several meters broad, the tips often ascending and 5-15 cm tall. Bark reddish to brownish, peeling. Stems short-hairy, sometimes glandular.
Leaves: alternate, oblong to obovate or spatulate, rounded to blunt-tipped, the blades mostly 1.5-3 cm long, dark green and glossy above, paler beneath, hairless to short-hairy, especially on the edges and midrib, the base tapered to the stalks 2-5 mm long.
Flowers: pink, about 5 mm long, borne in terminal, few-flowered clusters in the axils of small bracts, usually about equaling the flower stalks. Calyx lobes rounded, scarcely 1/4 the length of the urn-shaped, 5-lobed corolla. Anthers softly long-hairy near the broadened base.
Well-drained, mostly wooded areas, foothills to alpine zone, in w, c. and s.e. parts of MT. Also from AK to WA, OR, CA and to NM, IL, and the Middle Atlantic states, and Labrador, and in Eurasia.
The bearberry fruit is edible, raw or cooked. Insipid, dry and mealy, it becomes sweeter when cooked. Added to stews etc, it is a good source of carbohydrates. The fruit can also be used to make a cooling drink or used for preserves etc. It can be dried and stored for later use. A tea is made from the dried leaves.
Bearberry was commonly used by many native North American Indian tribes to treat a wide range of complaints and has also been used in conventional herbal medicine for hundreds of years, it is one of the best natural urinary antiseptics. The leaves contain hydroquinones and are strongly antibacterial, especially against certain organisms associated with urinary infections. The plant should be used with caution, however, because hydroquinones are also toxic. It is best not used by pregnant women since it can reduce the supply of blood to the fetus. The leaves are antiseptic, hypnotic, tonic, and has agents that cause tissue to contract, induce urination, and that cause the dissolution or destruction of stones in the bladder or kidneys. The dried leaves are used in the treatment of a variety of complaints. These leaves should be harvested in early autumn, only green leaves being selected, and then dried in gentle heat. A tea made from the dried leaves is much used for kidney and bladder complaints and inflammations of the urinary tract such as acute and chronic cystitis and urethritis, but it should be used with caution and preferably only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. The tea is more effective if the urine is alkaline, thus it is best used in combination with a vegetable-based diet. Externally, a poultice of the infused leaves with oil has been used as a salve to treat rashes, skin sores etc, and as a wash for a baby's head. An tea of the leaves has been used as an eyewash, a mouthwash for cankers and sore gums and as a poultice for back pains, rheumatism, burns etc. The dried leaves have been used for smoking as an alternative to tobacco. One report says that it is unclear whether this was for medicinal purposes or for the intoxicated state it could produce, while another says that the leaves were smoked to treat headaches and also as a narcotic. The herb should not be prescribed to children, pregnant women or patients with kidney disease. Another report says that some native North American Indian tribes used an infusion of the stems, combined with blueberry stems (Vaccinium spp) to prevent miscarriage without causing harm to the baby, and to speed a woman's recovery after the birth.
A yellowish-brown dye is obtained from the leaves, it does not require a mordant. A gray-brown dye is obtained from the fruit. The dried fruits have been used in rattles and as beads on necklaces etc. The leaves are a good source of tannin. The mashed berries can be rubbed on the insides of coiled cedar root baskets in order to waterproof them.
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