alpine bearberry

Alpine Bearberry: A Dwarf Shrub with Edible Berries

Alpine Bearberry: A Dwarf Shrub with Edible Berries

Alpine bearberry (Arctous alpina) is a low-growing shrub in the heather family (Ericaceae) that has a circumpolar distribution in northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America. It is also known as mountain bearberry or black bearberry, and its scientific name was formerly Arctostaphylos alpina.

The plant has woody stems and straggling branches that are usually less than 6 inches (15 cm) high. The leaves are oval, serrated and veined, and they wither in autumn but remain on the plant for another year. They often turn red or scarlet in fall. The flowers are white or pink, urn-shaped and grouped in clusters of two to five. They bloom in June and are followed by spherical fruits that are green, then red and finally glossy black when ripe. The fruits are edible and are a favorite food of bears, hence the common name.

Alpine bearberry grows in moorland, dry forests with birch and pine, and mossy hummocks at the edges of bogs. It can survive on sandy soils and can be found on gravel surfaces in Canada. It forms a symbiotic relationship with fungi that supply it with nutrients such as phosphorus.

The plant has various uses in traditional medicine and folk culture. The leaves contain phytochemicals such as arbutin, tannins, ursolic acid and gallic acid that have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties. The dried leaves can be used to make tea or tablets for treating urinary tract infections, kidney stones, cystitis and other ailments. However, the efficacy and safety of bearberry treatment in humans have not been proven by clinical trials, and some side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, back pain and tinnitus may occur with large doses. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, or people with kidney disease should avoid using bearberry.

The leaves were also used by Native American Indians as a tobacco substitute or mixed with tobacco for smoking. The berries can be eaten raw or cooked, but they are sour and astringent. They can also be used to make jams, jellies, pies or wine.

Alpine bearberry is a hardy plant that can withstand harsh conditions such as cold, drought and poor soil. It is adapted to Arctic and sub-Arctic climates, and has a high tolerance for frost. It can also grow at high altitudes, up to 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level.

The plant is a valuable food source for wildlife, especially in winter when other plants are scarce. Besides bears, other animals that feed on the berries include birds, rodents, foxes and deer. The leaves are also browsed by caribou, moose and elk. The plant provides shelter and nesting sites for some birds and insects.

Alpine bearberry has some ornamental value as a ground cover or rock garden plant. It can be propagated by seeds or cuttings, but it is slow-growing and may take several years to establish. It prefers acidic, well-drained soils and full sun or partial shade. It can be pruned to maintain its shape and prevent legginess. It is resistant to most pests and diseases, but may suffer from leaf spot or powdery mildew.

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