By Janelle Eklund
Walking through the aspen forest outside my door on a sunny/grayish day a patch of intense red colors with stripes of yellow and orange weave a pattern that seems to lift its brilliance to the sky.
That red carpet is primarily made from bearberry leaves. There are three different kinds of bearberry: Arctostaphylos rubra (Red -Fruit Bearberry); Arctostaphylos alpina (Alpine Bearberry); and Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Kinnikinnick). The red carpet you see comes from red-fruited and alpine bearberry. Kinnikinnick is an evergreen plant, keeping its green leaves throughout the year.
Red-fruit bearberry grows primarily in the lower elevations in moist wooded areas and on the tundra. The berry is red, translucent, juicy and seedy. The alpine bearberry grows in higher elevations and likes the dry tundra. Its berry is black, opaque, juicy and also seedy. The leaves of these two plants are similar. The flavor of both of these berries to me is somewhat dull and earthy. They aren't the most popular berry around. But if you cook and/or mix with blueberries they aren't so bad, or if you are out hiking they are good for a little snack when nothing else is in sight.
What I like most about them is the color of their leaves during cool autumn days. The tundra and woods receives a new intense palette of brilliance just screaming with joy.
The red Kinnikinnick berries are opaque and pretty mealy. They are edible but their flavor is also not the greatest, but becomes more palatable when cooked. The leaves of this plant have had a reputation of occasionally being used as a substitute for tobacco when dried. It makes its home in dry areas of the boreal forest and dry rocky bluffs. You will often see it intermingle with low bush cranberries.
There are some medicinal uses of Kinnikinnick as noted in Janice Schofield's Book, ‘Discovering Wild Plants’. She says that a tea made of it has been used to treat kidney and bladder infection, kidney stones, and urinary tract disorders. A decoction of this plant leaves can be used to wash skin irritation and rashes. She says to use in moderation - if taken in large or frequent doses "it can cause gastrointestinal upset, nausea, and central nervous system depression". She also warns that pregnant women should not use this plant internally because it could decrease circulation to the fetus.
Bears and other wildlife like to eat the berries of all of these fruits. This is where the plant got its name - bearberry - uva-ursi. This last spring when the birds were congregating here, waiting for the ice to melt, I noticed a lot of lapland longspurs and robins in the field behind the house. I went out with my telephoto lens to capture them pecking at something on the ground. It turned out to be last year's kinnikinnick berries. They were having a field day making a meal out of those berries!
Enjoy the brilliant colors of the season shining bright after a rain shower or dew drop morning.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.