Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden
Uva ursi, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (syn. Arctostaphylos officinalis, Arbutus uva-ursi, Uva-ursi procumbens and Uva-ursi uva-ursi), is also known as arberry, bearberry, bear grape, hogberry, hog cranberry, kinnikinnick, manzanita, mealberry, mountain box, mountain cranberry, pinemat manzanita, red bearberry, rockberry, sagackhomi, sandberry and upland cranberry. It is distantly related to the cranberry and Guelder rose (also called the European cranberry). Manzanita is a generic name for the whole of Arctostaphylos.
Bees are attracted to the flowers, and bears to the fruit in those countries where bears roam free. It is often used as an ornamental, sometimes also to combat soil erosion.
It’s known as a “pioneer plant”, because it’s often among the first to colonize an area which has been burnt to the ground, even on poor soils. It is an evergreen, only about 4 inches tall but spreading over an area of around 3 feet across and has pretty flowers which can range in color from white to pink. It bears quantities of mealy fruit, which while not very tasty (better if cooked), is high in carbs and makes this a good plant to have around in areas where food shortages might be a problem – so long as you don’t mind the odd bear popping in for a snack.
It’s native to Europe, the Russian Federation, Guatemala, the US and Canada and is naturalized in many other places. The further south it is found, the higher the altitude.
Uva ursi is a member of the family Ericaceae, which includes heather and various other fairly tough plants, but almost all are lime-hating and like acid soil best. This plant is exceptional, because it is not infrequently found growing in limestone areas, where calcifuges (lime haters) generally don’t survive for very long.
Uva ursi requires moist, well drained, light to medium soil, and although it prefers an acid soil, it can cope if this is impossible. It will grow in full sun, semi shade or even full shade. This makes it especially useful in gardens and reclamation areas where there are low light levels.
It will succeed best in relatively acidic but poor soil. If you buy plants in, try to disturb the roots as little as possible when planting out, and do not attempt to move them once established. Though it will succeed in shade, there will be more fruit on plants in sunnier areas. The main supply of leaves for medicinal use should be collected in the fall, picking only leaves which are green, and dried in a warm place.
Native Americans used uva ursi extensively to treat various problems, and it has been used in herbalism for centuries. However, the leaves (which are the part used for most purposes) contain hydroquinone, which is toxic in high doses and should not be taken for long periods. It should not be used while pregnant or breastfeeding or by anyone suffering from a kidney infection or kidney disease. Take no more than 10g (a third of an ounce) of dried leaf daily and do not exceed the stated dose. It is best to use uva ursi no more than 5 times a year (but if you’re getting UTIs or E.coli more frequently than this, you should be consulting a physician in any case). Discontinue use if the symptoms being treated do not go away after a week (48 hours for urinary tract infections) or if you develop a high fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or severe back pain and seek immediate medical assistance.
Despite all these warnings, uva ursi is a sovereign remedy for urinary tract infections and E.coli, best used in combination with a vegetarian diet to ensure that the urine is alkaline (otherwise the reaction in the kidneys which releases the active ingredient will not take place). For the same reason, do not combine its use with cranberry juice, as this makes the urine acidic.
The method for making an infusion is unusual. Soak the dried leaves from a few hours up to a week in alcohol (brandy is best), then use a teaspoon (5ml) of the soaked leaves to each cup (250ml, 8 fl oz) of boiling water. Allow to stand in the usual way before straining off the leaves and discarding them. You can drink up to 3 cups a day of this infusion, but stick to the time limits mentioned previously.
You may come across instructions for using uva ursi in poultices. However, the hydroquinone is easily absorbed by the skin, so rather than waste your 5 doses a year on stuff you can treat with other things, my advice is to save them up for UTIs and E.coli, which are much more difficult to find remedies for.
A recipe for lung repair recommended by Dr Elise Wright of AllExperts.com (sadly now defunct) /contains 1 part each of coltsfoot and uva ursi to 2 parts great mullein by volume. Take 2 cups of an infusion made from a teaspoonful of this mixture to a cup a day.
I offer uva ursi leaves in my online shop.
Uva ursi is not used in aromatherapy.
Uva ursi doesn’t need a great deal of attention, so it should be easy enough to ensure that organic cultivation methods are used. This will also avoid diluting or corrupting the active constituents with foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.