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Uva ursi is a small shrub native to Europe, Asia, and North America. It can be found growing in hilly areas, mountainous regions, and various other northern latitudes. It is particularly profuse in Scotland, where it thrives in the highlands and hills of the country. In North America, it is found growing throughout Canada and as far south as Wisconsin in the United States.
The name uva ursi means “the bear’s grape,” which is derived from both Latin and Greek origins. The plant is also known as bearberry because bears of all kinds seem to enjoy eating its fruit. Another theory suggests that this common name may have originated from the unpleasant flavor, which many label as “fit only for bears.”
In appearance, uva ursi has many branches containing short, woody stems which form thick masses growing up to 24 inches (60 centimeters) in length. The shrub is evergreen, with its leathery leaves growing up to one inch (2.5 centimeters) long, with a rounded apex. The upper sides of uva ursi leaves are a deep green with very distinguished veins, while the underside is a lighter green color. The flowers of uva ursi are small and white, and grow in drooping, closely crowded clusters of three to fifteen blossoms. The berries, which are borne in autumn, are small, bright red and glossy, and contain at least five seeds.
Uva ursi has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, being traced back as far as the 2nd century AD. Native Americans prized the plant for its ability to heal urinary tract infections (UTIs), a use for which it is still popular today. Modern scientific research has proven that uva ursi has numerous antibacterial properties which fight infection, and contains astringent tannins that reduce inflammation of mucous membranes. These properties make it especially effective in treating UTIs and cystitis, or bladder infections.
The leaves are the only part of uva ursi used for medicinal preparations. It is most commonly administered in the form of an herbal tea or infusion, which gives it a slightly diuretic effect, and has a soothing effect on the urinary tract. An infusion is made by steeping approximately one ounce (30 grams) of the dried leaves in one pint (470 ml) of boiling water for 20 minutes, and then straining. Capsules containing dried, ground leaves are also common, and can be found at many natural health stores around the world.
Uva ursi, while very effective, should always be taken cautiously. It should never be given to children, as it may irritate their delicate system. It should also never be taken while pregnant or nursing, or by people with high blood pressure. The herb can also be toxic to the liver when taken excessively or in large amounts. It should not be taken longer than five days in succession, never more than five times in one year, and always under a doctor’s supervision.