In midsummer, when the heat is on and the lawn is brown, you might start looking for something to plant that’s tougher and prettier than finicky turf. Enter the common bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), a glossy evergreen mat that thrives in conditions that decimate your average sod. Drought, bitter cold, neglect, and poor soil don’t stop this tough little native—it just keeps growing, albeit slowly. Tiny pinkish-white, urn-shaped flowers appear in spring and bright red berries in the fall. The “uva-ursi” in its Latin name means “bear’s grape”; in the wild, the berries are food for birds and bears.
Common name: common bearberry, bearberry, kinnikinick
Botanical name: Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Plant type: Low-growing shrub or groundcover
Zones: 2 to 6
Height: 4 to 12 inches
- Sun: Full sun to part shade
- Soil: Well-drained; prefers sandy and acidic
- Moisture: Dry to medium wet
- Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.
- Pruning: None needed.
- Fertilizer: Don’t fertilize. Bearberry does best in poor, infertile soils.
Pests and diseases
- Black mildew, rust, various fungal diseases
- Bearberry is good on slopes and hills; use it to control erosion.
- Use bearberry where it’s visible, so you can appreciate its four-season interest.
- Bearberry is a slow grower, but it will spread. In time, a bearberry patch can spread 15 feet.
- ‘Massachusetts’ (pictured here) is a medium-sized cultivar that’s resistant to leaf gall and leaf spot.
- ‘Big Bear’ has large, dark green leaves and big red fruits.
- ‘Wood’s Red’ is a dwarf variety with large fruit and reddish autumn foliage.
All in the family
- Blueberries, cranberries, rhododendrons, azaleas, and the many species of heath itself are also members of Ericaceae, the heath family.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’ courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)