Growing a Colorado Native Shrub, Kinnikinnick or Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Aquilegia Vol 2 No 6, November - December 1978

By Gail Evans & Kim Vories

KINNIKINNICK is a low, evergreen, prostrate shrub with tiny, leathery leaves. The leaves are reddish when young, glossy dark green when mature, and bronze in the Fall. The branches tend to root wherever they touch the ground. KINNIKINNICK forms a low mat from 6 – 12 inches high and spreads slowly. The flowers bloom from April to June, depending on the plant’s location. The tiny, waxy. pink to white urn shaped flowers are disposed in a short, few flowered raceme. The fruit is a berry with 4-10 hard seeds. The berries are about 1/4 inch in diameter and red when mature. The seeds are presumably dispersed by birds and mammals which eat the fruits. The number of seeds per pound ranges between 26,800 and 58,000. Seeds may mature from June through early Fall. Fruits may be collected by hand or picked off the ground but only after they are fully mature. Seed can be separated from the pulp by maceration in water, followed either by flotation (the seeds sink) or by fanning when dry.

bearberry blossoms

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi in Flower

Both softwood and hardwood cuttings will root somewhat easily and many nurseries prefer this type of propagation over seed germination for KINNIKINNICK. A high degree of hybridization with other species of Arctostaphylos, largely on the western slope of Colorado, allows the selection of certain desirable horticultural forms only by this type of propagation. KINNIKINNICK survives well in direct sun and dry soils as well as on moist, shaded sites. It grows best where the soil is coarse and sandy or rocky, well-drained and slightly acid. Avoid planting this shrub on heavy, clay or alkaline soils.

Seed can be stored for 1 year in dry, airtight containers, followed by stratification and planting the following year. The seeds have very hard coats and germinate erratically, even with pretreatment. Several methods may be used to help break dormancy. For field planting it is best to soak the seed in concentrated sulfuric acid for 2 – 5 hours. CAUTION: concentrated sulfuric acid is dangerous and should be judiciously used. Wash all containers and seeds in water after treatment and keep acid away from skin. For stratification following the acid treatment: (1) warm stratify at 25° C for 60 120 days followed by (2) moist stratification at 3° – 5° for 60 – 90 days.

Seed can be stratified in a medium of sand, peat or a mixture of peat, loam & perlite. The type of stratification may have an effect on the biological activity within the seeds particularly during warm stratification.

bearberry drupes

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi in Fruit

KINNIKINNICK has had many uses. Berries were used by pioneers to make ciders and jellies. Indians used parts of the plant for medicinal purposes, teas and a type of tobacco. Extracts of the leaves have been used to cure leather and as a lotion for ameliorating the effect of POISON OAK or SUMAC.

Seeds are available locally from:
(Editor’s note: none of the nurseries exist today, so their names have been deleted)

The information contained within this article has been extracted from several articles and the personal experiences of the authors. More detailed information may be obtained from Kim Vories, Range Science Dept., CSU 80523.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi in Fall Colors