Kinnikinnick’s Latin name, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, comes from arctos and ursi meaning bear and staphylos and uva meaning bunch of grapes. Amazing: the taste of those little grapes! I just tried something I had never tried before, but had read about several times.
As it happens, I was treating a certain condition I had. I always try local herbs before I go to the doctor, or I’ll go to the doctor to get a diagnosis and then decide on my own treatment. The kinnikinnick tea I brewed cleared the infection in a few days. If you are interested in trying local medicinal herbs, you might have Yukoner Beverly Gray’s book, The Boreal Herbal on your bookshelf and that is a great place to start exploring local herbs. Other books I use include The Herbalogy of North America by Alma R. Hutchens and Discovering Wild Plants by Janice J. Schofield.
One sunny afternoon last week, I went out to collect the kinnikinnick leaves and berries. They grow on our local tobogganing hill called Don’s Descent, named after my husband who discovered it, and after a ski run on Mount Sima. You’d be amazed how a kinnikinnick-covered hill is so good for sliding even if there is little snow. I think it has to do with the shiny/smooth surface of the leaves, and the way the plant, a ground cover, forms an extensive carpet on the hillside.
On the hill, I brushed away the snow, which readily exposed the kinnikinnick plants and picked a handful of berries, and a bunch of branches with the evergreen leaves.
Back home, now reading my books, I find I only need the leaves for their medicinal properties; however, I don’t want to discard the berries I picked.
I knew they are more of a survival food than anything. If you have tried them, they are dry and mealy tasting and have hard seeds. In those herbal books, there are several suggestions on how to make the berries more palatable. I decided to just grind them with my mortar and pestle. And, indeed, I was surprised how that enhanced the taste, which became quite sweet and fruity. I made sure that I crushed the seeds. This gave the berry paste a gritty texture, but it wasn’t unpleasant anymore.
For pure delight, I still prefer the bottom of the bell-shaped flowers of kinnikinnick for a honey treat, to be picked in early spring. Look for them at the end of April.
An interesting fact about kinnikinnick is its relationship in the Yukon to spruce trees. More specifically, a fungus on Kinnikinnick is the cause of spruce brooms – those round balls of spruce needles that can be found in some spruce trees. These brooms are caused by a fungus that lives on the leaves of kinnikinnick. Chrysomyxa arctostaphyli is a fungus that has a lifecycle that depends on kinnikinnick and spruce. The fungus produces purpley brown spots that seem to be present on the leaves of all kinnikinnick plants. I will check this summer, but so far I haven’t seen kinnikinnick plants without this fungus.
I looked for spruce brooms the remainder of the week. I found that here in the Mendenhall Subdivision, there are often a few spruce brooms per acre in a spruce forest. Sometimes the tree and the broom appear dead, suggesting that the fungus kills the tree, or that the fungus affects an already dying tree. I do know of two very large brooms in the top of trees that appear very alive and healthy. One such broom is on the top of a tree in my backyard and sometimes I will see a squirrel peeking out his head: the perfect squirrel penthouse.