Uva Ursi

Uva ursi has traditionally been used as a medicinal herb but has little to no nutritional value. The medical uses are not scientifically validated, so caution is recommended.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Uva ursi, bearberry, common bearberry, kinnikinnick, tinnick, mealberry, bear's grape
  • Scientific nameArctostaphylos uva-ursi, Arbutus uva-ursi
  • Plant typeShrub
  • Native regionWestern Europe
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Uva ursi

The name of this herb means "bear-grape" in Latin, referring to the fact it is loved by bears, which is also reflected in the alternative name "bearberry." Uva ursi is native to Europe and is widely distributed in the arctic. It is commonly found in Europe, Asia, and North America. The plant grows best in damp conditions and is generally found in undergrowth, heathland, and grassland.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAntimicrobial, Astringent
  • Key constituentsArbutin
  • Ways to useCapsules, Hot infusions/tisanes
  • Medicinal rating(1) Very minor uses
  • Safety rankingSafety undetermined

Health Benefits of Uva Ursi

To date, little scientific research has been carried out on uva ursi, but it is known that too much can cause liver damage. The following medicinal uses are based mainly on anecdotal evidence and years of tradition rather than scientific proof:

  • Alleviating bladder and kidney infections
  • Promoting bladder and kidney health

How It Works

Arbutin is the main active compound found in uva ursi, and it is regarded as responsible for most of the herb's antimicrobial, astringent, and disinfectant properties. In vitro studies of human melanocyte cells (located just underneath the skin) exposed to arbutin reported decreased tyrosinase activity - tyrosinase is the enzyme responsible for controlling the rate of melanin. There was little evidence of toxicity.

UVA URSI OFFERS ANTIMICROBIAL AND DISINFECTANT PROPERTIES.

Some in vitro studies have shown arbutin to possess a mild to moderate action against overgrowth of Candida albicans fungi, as well as Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli bacteria. 

How to Consume Uva Ursi

Main preparations: Tea, supplements

There is little to be gained from eating the fresh uva ursi fruit, and too much supplement intake can be dangerous. The tea can be drunk to promote bladder health, but there is not yet enough objective evidence to reliably back up anecdotal uses.

Uva Ursi Side Effects

Due to its ability to damage the liver, uva ursi should not be taken for more than three days at a time, and always under a doctor's supervision. General side effects reported include mild nausea, vomiting, irritability, and insomnia. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, those with high blood pressure, Crohn's disease, kidney or liver disease should avoid taking uva ursi completely.

The liver-damaging properties of uva ursi can be attributed to hydroquinone (HQ), a compound that arbutin is converted into inside the body. In animal tests, HQ induced benign liver tumors in mice. As well as liver damage being a risk with long-term use, uva ursi has also been linked with albuminuria, hematuria, and urinary casts.

Other Uses

Some Native American peoples would smoke uva ursi, but apart from this and its medicinal applications, there are no uses for the plant.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores

Uva ursi capsules and uva ursi tea are the two most commonly sold forms of the herb. It is rarely found fresh due to the fruit's undesirable taste. Leaves can be dried and made into a tincture or tea. Alternatively, teabags can be bought from specialized health stores. Supplements can be found in various herbal medicine stores, and these are taken to get rid of urinary tract infections.

DUE TO POSSIBLE LIVER TOXICITY, UVA URSI SHOULD NEVER BE TAKEN FOR MORE THAN FIVE DAYS AT A TIME OR MORE THAN FIVE TIMES PER YEAR.

Plant Biology

Classification

Uva ursi belongs to the Ericaceae family, and more specifically to the genus Arctostaphylos. The plant is a small, wiry, evergreen shrub with bright green leaves. The branches grow flat along the ground and are a reddish-brown color. The uva ursi flower is pink and bell-shaped, and its appearance is followed by bright red berries. One plant can cover 6 - 12 inches (15 - 30 cm) of ground.

Varieties and Subspecies of Uva Ursi

There are various species related to uva ursi that may be commonly confused with the plant. These include A. alpina (alpine bearberry), A. andersonii (Santa Cruz manzanita), and A. auriculata (Mt. Diablo manzanita). There are also several cultivars that have been developed, such as 'Massachusetts', but these are mainly for ornamental purposes. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is sometimes referred to as Arbutus uva-ursi, its basionym.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsLeaves
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilLight (sandy)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatArid or desert regions, Cool temperate regions, Temperate climates
  • Potential diseasesMildew, Root rot

Uva ursi is a perennial evergreen and grows in damp conditions, preferably under a neutral to slightly acidic soil. It is difficult to grow as a garden plant, as it does not grow well after being transplanted from the wild, although propagation by cuttings seems to be more successful. The best soils for uva ursi are well-drained, sandy, or gritty, and it likes exposed open sites. Once established, this plant is extremely drought tolerant and should be placed in full sun, although it can also tolerate light shade. Uva ursi is usually regarded as tolerant to most plagues and diseases, and it is rarely attacked by deer or birds, although it is susceptible to root rot and mildew, especially in southern areas.

Additional Information

Historical Information

The history of uva ursi is mainly medicinal; the herb has little nutritional and absolutely no culinary value. Various historical peoples have used uva ursi since the 2nd century, most notably for bladder and urinary infections. Documents have been found from Wales dating back to the 13th century mentioning the use of uva ursi as a medicinal agent. For the Native Americans, it was also a popular herb to smoke with tobacco.

Bibliography