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Uva-Ursi (Bearberry)

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Uva-Ursi - Background and History

Uva-ursi, better known as bearberry is a medicinal plant that has a long-standing history of curative use. Thought to be endemic to some parts of the Americas, uva ursi also thrives in some parts of Europe and Asia and is characterised by its small, shrub-like appearance, replete with shiny, thick stiff dark-green leaves. [1] Long employed as a medicinal herb by the Native Americans, uva-ursi thrives in warm temperate climates, although it is more than capable of tolerating cold temperature, being a hardy, evergreen ground-covering plant that borders between the shrubby to the vine-like.

Uva ursi is also characterised by its red berries and white or pink flowers, both of which (the former more so than the latter) are traditionally ascribed to be favourite foraging materials for bears (hence its name). When employed medicinally, the whole of the plant is typically employed traditionally, each with its own distinct medicinal property, although as of modern times, the medicinal parts of the plant more commonly employed by herbalists have been relegated to the leaves, and, on occasion, the fruit alone.



General Uses

In the traditional context, the leaves of uva ursi was originally decocted and made into tisanes, as it acted as a mild diuretic when drunk. A very strong decoction of the leaves, usually combined with other herbs, also made for a great rinse for wounds and hair, as it possessed significant antimicrobial capacities. The berries of the plant were also collected by hunter-gatherer tribes and integrated into their diet. It took acted as a mild diuretic and digestif, as well as a potent preservative. It was typically mashed and blended with other berries and dried meats, creating a nutritive yet nearly non-perishable 'packed meal' called pemmican. The leaves of the plant, when dried and rubbed into fine semi-powdery flakes were also mixed with other herbs such as red willow bark, mullein, and tobacco and smoked in pipes. This smoking blend, quite popular with many Native American tribes were referred to by the Alonquin as 'kinnikinnick' (lit. 'mixture' / 'blend'). [2] This smoking blend was typically used both ritualistically and generally, and varying recipes of kinnikinnick were said to possess mildly narcotic and somewhat hallucinogenic after-effect, although whether this is caused chiefly by the uva ursi, or due to its interaction with other herbs (such as the probable hallucinogenic Nicotianum rusticum) remains unclear.

The most common use of uva ursi nowadays typically involves its use for the treatment of various urinary disorders and complaints. To this effect, uva ursi has been labeled as something of a 'woman's herb', and is typically made into a tisane and drunk to treat urinary track infections. For treating urinary complaints, a strong decoction of its leaves is drunk at least twice a day. When combined with other herbs, uva ursi can be used to treat other diseases related to the urinary track. [3] The most popular combination involves equal parts of uva ursi combined with marshmallow root, either brewed as tea, made into a tincture, or otherwise powdered and encapsulated. This potent combination is typically used to help relieve cystic kidney and bladder stones, as well as to flush out accumulated toxins in the body. A strong tincture of uva ursi has long been prescribed by early European apothecaries as a healing 'tonic' for women who have but newly given birth. As postpartum medicine, uva uri helps to hasten the normalisation of the womb. In the traditional context, uva ursi was given to women after birthing to help prevent hemorrhaging, and to also used as a rinse for their private areas to help allay infection[4]. Uva ursi also makes for an excellent smoking herb, either used by itself or when combined with tobacco, although its most common uses with regards to smoking as of late is as part of 'quitting' blends that help a person ease their system away from nicotine dependency.

Esoteric Uses

In the magickal context, uva ursi was smoked ritualistically both as a means to forward prayers to the Divine, as well as to promote tranquility and calm. It was among the many herbs smoked during 'peace pipe' ceremonies, a practice still done today in many Native American tribes. When burnt solely as incense, uva ursi is said to effectively thin the barrier between this world and the next, allowing for easier communion with spirits. In the shamanic sense, it made for one's communication with totemic or ancestral spirits easier, although it was technically just a 'one way' communiqué, allowing the shaman to relay request, but not enabling the spirits or powers to return a discernible reply unlike the experience brought about when employing more powerful hallucinogens.

Safety Note

It should be noted that while uva ursi is generally considered safe in small dosages, it can be dangerous if consumed for a prolonged period of time, and may have negative interactions with synthetic medicines if taken together. Avoid consuming uva ursi for more than five days without the help of an expert herbalist, and never drink uva ursi if you are under specialized medications.

Names of Uva-ursi, past and present

French: arbousier / arbousier trainant / faux buis raisin de Renard (other names exist, varying on the region where the plant grows)
Spanish / Filipino: manzanita / uva del oso
Native American (various tongues): kinnikinnik / sagackhomi
English: uva ursi (adopted) / bearberry / sandberry / rockberry / beargrape / mountain cranberry
Latin (esoteric): uva ursi / uvae ursi folium / arbutus
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Arctostaphylos uva ursi

References & Further Reading

[1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctostaphylos_uva-ursi
[2] http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/uva-ursi-000278.htm
[3] http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-uva-ursi.html
[4] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/bearbe22.html

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013

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