In the woods and along the lower slopes in Glacier National Park, it’s easy to walk past a low, trailing shrub called Kinnikinnik (also Kinnickinnik). It’s rather unobtrusive when the white and pinkish flowers aren’t blooming in June and when the bright red berries haven’t shown up yet in the fall.
The plant is better known as the Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), dwarf manzanita and other local names. You’ll find it in the northern hemisphere from Scottish heaths to California gardens to the mountains of the Rocky Mountain Front.
In folk medicine, the bark and leathery evergreen leaves have been used for teas and infusions, typically for their diuretic properties. The name Kinnikinnik refers specifically to smoking mixtures used by Native Americans that, in addition to tobacco, red willow bark, etc.) included the bearberry’s leaves and purplish-red bark. The name kinnikinnik rather stuck to the bearberry.
According to the Kinnickinnick Native Plant Society, “It is pronounced KINNY-kin-ICK, or Kinn-ICK-innick, and comes from the aboriginal – most scholars say the Alonquin – meaning “smoking mixture.” Although the plant was native here, it seems to have been the fur traders’ employees who brought the name west with them. Its other common name, Bear Berry, comes from its genus ARCTOSTAPHYLOS, from the Greek word for bear – Arktos and staphylos – a bunch of grapes, which its berries resemble. The species name of “uva-ursi” is apparently from the Latin “uva” (grape) and “ursus” (bear).”
In Glacier, the shrub often grows in large mats along park roads. You can see it along the lake level trails near Many Glacier Hotel.
In my novel “The Sun Singer,” Robert Adams was told he could always remember the name of this plant because it was spelled the same way from both directions.