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Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a small evergreen shrub. It’s generally found in the northern regions of Europe, Asia, and the United States. This shrub has reddish-brown colored bark and bright red berries. Although sour-tasting for most human standards, the bears seem to be quite fond of the shrub’s edible berries. This has earned it the nickname of beargrape as well.
The leaves of bearberry are more popular with people and have been used medicinally throughout history, especially by Native Americans. The green beargrape leaves are usually harvested in fall and then dried for use in various herbal remedies. While the liquid extract or infusion is most commonly used, today the remedy can also be taken in capsule, tablet, or tincture form.
Remedies from the shrub have been used to treat a myriad of conditions. Most notably it is an effective diuretic and astringent. Bearberry was oftentimes used to treat urinary tract infections (UTIs) by Native Americans and is still used for this today by herbalists in the field. It is also effective for treating various kidney problems including kidney stones and inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory properties of bearberry also make it useful for reducing inflamed mucous membranes. The folk remedy has been used in treating mucous-related conditions, such as bronchitis. The shrub’s antiseptic properties make it ideal for use on the skin as well, and it is commonly found as an ingredient in many skin-care products today. An unusual component of the plant has a whitening effect on the skin, making it useful in hiding blemishes such as freckles or age spots.
In addition to its diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties, bearberry contains a high amount of tannin. This chemical can be extremely toxic to the liver. It can also produce severe stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting. As a result, the leaves must be soaked in water for at least 24 hours prior to boiling the herbal remedy. It should also not be taken for extended periods and only used under the care of a qualified practitioner.
Although deemed relatively safe in low doses and for short periods, some people may still exhibit mild bouts of nausea, irritability, and insomnia. In some cases, use of bearberry has also resulted in green urine. Pregnant women and those who breastfeed should never use this herbal treatment.
Native Americans employed other uses for bearberry. The berries were commonly cooked, dried, and then added to pemmican, which was an important food staple made from dried meat. Bearberry fruits were used in making jellies, jams, and sauces too. In addition to food stuffs, Native Americans were known to occasionally smoke the crushed, dried leaves, treating it much like tobacco. Its high tannin content made the plant exceptionally useful for tanning leather products as well.