Bearberry Plant Facts:
The name “bearberry” comes from the fact that it bears fruit. The berries are edible and have been used medicinally for centuries. They were once commonly grown in Europe, but they became rare due to over harvesting and poor growing conditions. Today, bearberries are found only in Alaska, Canada and Russia. Some species of bearberry produce blackish-purple berries while others produce white or pink ones (the latter being the most common).
Black bearberry is the most popular variety, but there are other varieties such as red bearberry and purple bearberry.
Bearberries grow up to 10 feet tall with dark green leaves. Their flowers are small, white and borne on short stalks. The fruits ripen in early summer and taste like a cross between strawberries and raspberries. They’re best eaten fresh when ripe; dried berries make excellent jam or jelly.
How To Grow Bearberry Plants:
Bearberry plants need full sun, well drained soil and lots of water. They prefer rich loamy soils, but will tolerate sandy or clayey soils if kept moist. They do not like cold temperatures and should be protected from frost. If planted too close together, they may become leggy and wilt under their own weight. Plants are easily pruned back to keep them manageable.
When growing bearberry plants the first step is to prepare the soil over the planting area by digging or tilling it. Bearberry plants are good for covering slopes or embankments. The next step is to make sure the soil is well prepared and firmed and then you can plant your seeds or bearberry plants. Care should be taken to keep them moist when first planted. You can expect your bearberry plants to begin blooming within a few weeks of planting.
When the fruit ripens can vary depending on the type of bearberry plant you have.
All parts of the bearberry plant are poisonous and consumption can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. However, Native Americans used to eat the berries with no apparent ill effects. The berries were typically mixed with other food because of their strong taste. The leaves, flowers and stems contain high levels of resins and should be handled with caution.
Plants can be propagated by division, seeds or cuttings. Softwood tip cuttings are the easiest method and should be taken in the spring. Dig up the shallow root clump and remove some of the oldest canes. Cut these canes to about 12 inches in length and strip all the leaves off (this will prevent rotting while you prepare the cuttings). Clean up the cut ends and leave them to dry for few days.
Dip the ends in a strong rooting hormone and then insert into a pot or tray of moist rooting compound. Cover with a thin layer of the rooting compound and water well. Place the cuttings in a propagating case or bag or somewhere cool, 15 to 21C (60 to 70F) and leave for a few weeks. Keep an eye on the cuttings and remove any that look like they are rotting. After a few weeks, transfer the ones that have developed roots to individual pots and treat as adult plants.
Hardwood cuttings can also be used but these are harder to root. Dig up an adult plant and remove a few of the thick stem tips (about 10cm). Clean and strip the leaves off and let them dry out a few days. Dip the cut ends in rooting hormone and plant them into a pot of slightly moist peat moss. Cover with a clear plastic bag to keep the humidity up and place the pot in a warm area.
Check regularly to see if it is humid enough by feeling the bag. Add water to the peat moss as necessary. After a few weeks, once there are obvious signs of roots, transfer the young plants to individual pots and treat like adult plants.
The plants also reproduce through seed. Seed should be sown in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe. Germination usually occurs in spring. If the seed is sown in spring it should be left in the cold frame for a year before planting out because the seeds often do not germinate in spring. After the first year, transplant the young plants out into the open ground when they are a few inches high.
Bark strips can be easily collected in the winter and spring. These are used by various Native American tribes for a wide variety of purposes. They can be dried and stored for later use or used fresh. The strips can be steeped in water to make a dye solution that can color anything from cloth to leather. They can also be used as a topical medicine and has been used to treat open wounds, sores, bleeding gums, burns, bee stings and other skin irritations.
The Native Americans also used the juice from the inner bark as a type of “sugar” to flavor meats while cooking. The branches make good poles for intricate basket weaving.
Native Americans also used bearberry as part of their smoking mixtures for rituals and leisure. The berries can be dried, crushed and sprinkled on a cigarette for this purpose. This will also flavor the smoke and give it a nice appearance.
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Sources & references used in this article:
Evaluating bearberry nitrogen nutrition using hydroponic cultures: Establishing preliminary DRIS norms by J Alegre, D López‐Vela, E Eymar… – Journal of plant …, 2003 – Taylor & Francis
Trials on the propagation of bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) as an ornamental ground cover plant. I. by C Rey – Revue Suisse de Viticulture, d’Arboriculture et d’ …, 1980 – cabdirect.org
Species productivity schedule: Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. by B Kaplan – 2012 – deepblue.lib.umich.edu
The New England Wild Flower Society guide to growing and propagating wildflowers of the United States and Canada by W Cullina – 2000 – books.google.com
Winter acclimation of PsbS and related proteins in the evergreen Arctostaphylos uva‐ursi as influenced by altitude and light environment by CR Zarter, WW Adams, V Ebbert… – Plant, Cell & …, 2006 – Wiley Online Library