Bearberries are three species of dwarf shrubs in the genus Arctostaphylos. Unlike the other species of Arctostaphylos (see Manzanita), they are adapted to Arctic and sub-Arctic climates, and have a circumpolar distribution in northern North America, Asia and Europe, one with a small highly disjunct population in Central America.
Other recorded old English common names include Arberry, Bear's Grape, Crowberry, Foxberry, Hog Cranberry, Kinnikinnick, Mealberry, Mountain Box, Mountain Cranberry, Mountain Tobacco, Sandberry, Upland Cranberry, Uva-ursi.
The plant contains arbutin, methylarbutin, a bitter principle, ursolic acid, tannic acid, gallic acid, some essential oil and resin, hydroquinones (mainly arbutin, up to 17%), tannins (up to 15%), phenolic glycosides and flavonoids.
The leaves are picked any time during the summer and dried for use in infusions, liquid extracts, medicinal tea bags and tablets. The plant has the following claimed properties: anti-lithic, aromatic, astringent, disinfectant, diuretic, lithontripic, sedative (renal), stimulant (mild), tonic, urinary antiseptic. It has been used to treat arthritis, back pain (lower), bed wetting, bile problems, bladder infections, bloating, bright's disease, bronchitis, cararrh of the bladder, cystitis, diabetes (by removing excessive sugar from the blood), diarrhea, fevers, fluid retention, gallstones, gonorrhea, headache (smoked), haemorrhoids, indigestion, kidney stones, kidney infections, liver problems, lung congestion, excessive menstration, nephritis, obesity, pancreatitis, prostate gland weakness, rheumatism, chronic urethritis, vaginal discharge, vaginal diseases, and water retention .
It is claimed to strengthen the heart muscle and urinary tract, return the womb to its normal size after childbirth, and prevents uteral infection. It is also claimed to be a powerful tonic for the sphincter muscle of the bladder so it helps with bladder control problems. It has a strong bacteriostatic action against Staphylococci and E. coli. The leaves have strong astringent properties.
Bearberry is relatively safe, although large doses may cause nausea, green urine, bluish-grey skin, vomiting, fever, chills, severe back pain, ringing in the ears (some people can withstand up to 20g and others show signs of poisoning after just 1g); take no more than 7-10 days at a time.
It should not be used by people who are pregnant, breast feeding, nor in the treatment of children (under 12) and patients with kidney disease. Drug interactions have been recorded with diuretics, as well as drugs that make the urine acidic (such as ascorbic acid and Urex).
Bearberry was first documented in The Physicians of Myddfai, a 13th century Welsh herbal, it was also described by Clusius in 1601, and recommended for medicinal use in 1763 by Gerhard and others. Often called uva-ursi, from the Latin uva, "grape, berry of the vine", ursi, "bear", i.e. "bear's grape". It first appeared in the London Pharmacopoeia in 1788, though it probably was in use long before.
In Strathnairn, Scotland there is a hill, known in English as Brin Mains, but which is known in Scottish Gaelic as "Cnoc nan Cnàimhseag" which means "The hill of the Bearberries".
Marco Polo reported in 13th century that the Chinese were using it as a diuretic, to treat kidney and urinary problems. Bearberry leaves are used still used medicinally in Poland and other countries.
Native Americans used it with tobacco and other herbs in religious ceremonies; used as a smudge (type of incense) or smoked in a sacred pipe, it carried the smoker's prayers to the Great Spirit. When mixed with tobacco, it was referred to as Kinnikinnick, from the Algonquian for "mixture". Native Americans also used Bearberry tea to treat inflammation of the urinary tract, urethritis, kidney stones, and cystitis. The Cheyenne used the tea to treat back sprains. Some Native American tribes powdered the leaves and applied them to sores. Other tribes drank it to treat venereal diseases. The berries were also made into a tea that was used to ward off obesity. Early European settlers in the Americas used the leaves taken internally as an astringent to treat nephritis, kidney stones and other diseases of the urinary system.