The urn-shaped blossoms of Bearberry. Worth getting down on your knees for!
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, commonly known as Bearberry is blooming now. You have to be on the lookout for these little treasures, because they’re not only tiny but often partially hidden underneath the plant’s leaves. As names go, Bearberry is self-explanatory. In the fall, bears rake their claws through the low growing mats and devour the red drupes. Although humans can eat them too, they seldom bother due to lack of taste. Its scientific name is also self explanaotory, From the Greek we get Arctos for bear, and staphyle means bunches of grapes. The specific epithet comes from the Latin words uva, meaning grape, and ursus meaning bear.
Bearberry is considered a sub-shrub, with woody stems, evergreen leaves that persist for one to three years before being replaced, and
staying under 12 inches in height. In Colorado it can be found in open forests as a ground cover between 6,100 and 13,000 feet. It prefers gravelly or sandy exposed sites and is often found sprawling over rock faces as in the photo.
The branches are long and flexible, with papery, peeling bark that becomes reddish brown with age. It spreads slowly by surface rhizomes to form dense mats.
While obviously a tough plant, Bearberry does require specific conditions not every home garden can provide. It needs an acid soil with a pH between 4.0 and 6.0 and excellent drainage.
Attractive drupes consist five nutlets, edible, but described by Meriwether Lewis in 1806 as “tasteless and insipid.” But good for wildlife!
Bearberry is circumpolar, native to cooler regions all the way around the world. It has many benefits to wildlife in addition to bears! Birds that use it include ruffed grouse, band-tailed pigeons, evening grosbeaks, sparrows, and other ground-feeding aves. It is a host plant for several butterfly species including Hoary Elfin, Brown Elfin and Freija Fritillary. It attacts adult butterflies and hummingbirds.
The Xerces Society lists Bearberry as having special value to native bees.
Bearberry is evergreen, although emergent leaves are sometimes red.