Friday, December 25, 2009

Name That Native Plant

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (c) John Ashley
Our native forb with a bushell of names
Do you recognize this little native plant? It's evergreen foliage and long-lasting, red berries have decorated many a holiday home in Euro-American culture. What is it's name? Or more precisely, what is your culture's name for it?

This humble heather has a heaping hoard of historic names -- phew! -- that might just leave your head spinning.

It's scientific name (from the 1700's) is one of my all-time favorites, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (ark-toh-STAF-ih-los OO-va ER-see). Those words feel good rolling around in your mouth -- especially the uva-ursi part. And the funny thing is, this name is Greek-Latin double-talk; the first and second words mean the same thing.

The genus, Arctostaphylos, is Greek. Arkto means bear, and staphyle means a bunch of grapes, so this part translates into "bear grapes." The species, uva-ursi, is Latin. Uva means grape and ursi means bear. So when you sing-song Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, you're really saying "bear grapes bear grapes."

Currently, one of the most common names for the plant is kinnininnick, which is an Algonquian (Delaware Indian) word that means "mixture." That's because the dried leaves were often mixed with tobacco to mellow out the flavor and, especially, to make the tobacco supply last longer. Just ask Lewis and Clark.

Lewis and Clark's pressed uva-ursi specimen, with notes, at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia
Lewis and Clark's very own
pressed Uva-ursi specimin
Their expedition finally reached the Pacific Ocean late in 1805, drenched by non-stop rain and in need of emergency winter shelter. And just as worrisome, their supply of Turkish tobacco was dwindling. So even before their shelter was finished, Captain Clark, "dispatched two men to the open lands near the Ocian for Sackacome, which we make use of to mix with our tobacco to Smoke, which has an agreeable flavour."

That's right, Clark called it, Sackacome. Earlier that same year, Clark had misunderstood the plant's name when he received some dried leaves as a gift from a French fur trader. But this name was derived from the erroneous transliteration of Segockiniac, the Chippewa Indian word for mixture. Other confounding transcriptions included sac á comis, sagakomi, and segockimac.

Earlier, in about 1625, European botanists gave the plant another one of its common names, Bearberry. In 13th century England, medicinal uses for uva-ursi leaves were described in the "The Physicians of Myddfia," a Welsh Herbal ("Herbals" are books of plant medicinal uses). But -- as you might have guessed -- many of the old Herbals had another name for this plant, Arbutus.

Whatever name you might know it by, this short heather has a long history.

Evergreen uva-ursi under the winter snow (c) John Ashley
Uva-ursi berry under snow in winter
Because uva-ursi stays green year-round, and tends to keep its berries through the winter, it is a food resource for wildlife and humans alike. In winter, deer browse on the leaves while Grouse and Wild Turkeys eat the berries. When food is otherwise scarce in the spring, black bears seek out these berries.

But the red berries taste rather mealy to many people, including Meriwether Lewis. "The natives on this [the west] side of the Rocky mountains who can procure this berry invariably use it. To me it is a very tasteless and insippid fruit," he wrote. Native Americans fried or boiled the fruit, which is high in vitamin C, to make them a little sweeter. They also mixed the berries with fat and dried buffalo meat to make pemmican (a method invented by Native Americans to store surplus food for future need).

Dried uva-ursi leaves were often mixed with tobacco, and they were also smoked instead of tobacco. One traditional tobacco-substitute recipe that was smoked in the northwest consisted of equal parts dried leaves of uva-ursi, bayberry, Labrador tea, and wormwood mixed with the inner bark of red osier dogwood, chokecherry and alder.

Uva-ursi in summer (c) John Ashley
Uva-ursi berries in summer
Native Americans smoked uva-ursi tobacco in a sacred pipe, and the rising smoke was believed to carry the smoker's prayers to the Great Spirit. They used the plant in religious ceremonies as well, and as a smudge (a type of incense). They also used uva-ursi to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections -- uses that were adopted by early settlers -- and made a tea from the berries to use against obesity.

Modern-day herbalists still use uva-ursi. The dried leaves contain arbutin and tannic acid. Arbutin is an astringent with antiseptic properties, and it is useful for killing bacteria in the urine. And tannic acid from uva-ursi is used commercially in Scandinavia for tanning leather hides.

Of course, Scandinavians have their own names for this little heather. They include: mjølbær (Norwegian), hede-melbærris (Danish), sianpuolukka (Finnish), and grainnseag (Gaelic).

Here in Montana, the Salish name for bearberry is skw lsé, and the Blackfeet call it kakahsiin.

Just don't ask me how to pronounce any of those names.  My head's still spinning a little, so I'll just stick with my favorite, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. Now didn't that just feel good rolling off your tongue?

Bearberry Kinnikinnick (c) John Ashley
Kinnikinnick flowers in spring