Flowers, Foliage, Ground Cover, Shrubs

Bearberry: Low-Growing Perennial Groundcover


Bell-shaped bearberry flowers

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, most often referred to as bearberry, is the perfect edible ground cover for anyone struggling with poor soil or rocky soil conditions in their landscape. Its common name comes from what happens to most of these plants – apparently bears love the fruit that the plant produces and will happily consume them in huge volumes in fall as they’re fattening up for the winter. 

This is not limited to bears, either; many types of migratory birds will happily eat the berries. The bright red bearberry is edible for humans as well! You can add visual interest to any home garden with its dark green leaves and pink flowers. 

It’s perennial and is a beautiful, small-leaved ground cover with red berries. The flowers aren’t dramatic, but it looks good as an understory layer around larger shrubs as well as just simply as a cover for a space in your landscape you don’t intend to walk on (it has woody stems that don’t make it suitable for much foot traffic). 

This plant can perform in both full sun and full shade, although it prefers full sun in most areas. The bearberry plant is the unsung hero of North America, feeding bears with its berries and acting as a medicinal plant in Native American cultures for centuries. 

Quick Care Guide

Bell-shaped bearberry flowers
Bearberry flowers are shaped like tiny bells. Source: Cranbrook Institute
Common NameArctostaphylos uva-ursi
Scientific NameCommon bearberry, kinnickinnick, bear’s grape, sandberry, barren myrtle, mountain box, and hog cranberry
FamilyEricaceae, the heath family
Height & Spread12 inches tall and up to 3-6 feet wide
LightFull sun
SoilSandy, acidic soil
WaterDrought tolerant once established
Pests & DiseasesWinter burn, aphids, root rot

All About Bearberry

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is a lovely, low-growing perennial shrub. Source: Keith

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is also known by many other names such as bearberry, kinnickinnick, bear’s grape, sandberry, common bearberry, barren myrtle, mountain box, and hog cranberry. 

The bearberry plant is an evergreen shrub native to circumboreal regions around the world such as Canada, Finland, Russia, etc. It prefers northern cold climates and does best in USDA zones 2-6. In the wild, their dark green leaves are mostly found on open slopes as they thrive in rocky soils. 

Bearberry plants (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) can be identified by their woody stems, dark evergreen leaves, pink flowers, and eventually bright red berries. It is a slow-growing perennial ground cover that spreads via surface rhizomes. 

The Arctostaphylos uva-ursi plant grows in a mat which makes it beneficial for landscape erosion control, and to fill in spaces in garden beds. It will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your gardens with its urn-shaped flowers. In fact, it is the host plant for several butterflies including the hoary elfin and brown elfin. 

In North America the bearberry plant has been used extensively by Native American tribes as part of smoking mixtures, dried for tea, as an anti-inflammatory, and as an antiseptic. It also has astringent properties and has been used to wash sores or small wounds. 

Care

Bearberry buds forming
The flower buds are nondescript until they open. Source: nordique

The Arctostaphylos uva-ursi plant is the perfect species of ground cover if you’re looking for a low-maintenance evergreen that grows in spring and flowers during the summer. It makes a lovely addition to any garden and will very few requirements met, it will establish and you’ll be able to enjoy it year after year. 

Sun and Temperature

Bearberry plants thrive in full sun, however, they can tolerate light shade. That being said, you’ll get the most growth, flowers, and fruit when you give your bearberry full sun, rather than partial shade. As mentioned above they do best in USDA zones 2-6 and can tolerate cold winter fall and climates. They tolerate the cold so well that seeds can germinate in temperatures as low as 40 degrees. 

The bearberry plant itself does best in a temperature range of 40-77 degrees Fahrenheit. As an evergreen shrub, the dark green leaves are green year-round and do not need protection from frost. They will not, however, tolerate high heat. 

Water and Humidity

The bearberry plant is extremely drought tolerant once established and may never need to be watered outside of any precipitation that you receive in your garden. For this reason, it is a great landscaping option for low water or xeriscaped gardens. It can tolerate both moist and dry growing conditions, however, it will not tolerate standing water. During the first year of growth be sure to water your bearberry plants to get them established, then you can back off of watering. 

During the winter it is not necessary to water this plant as it will get all the moisture that it requires from any snowfall. In the mid-spring and summer months, they may require slightly more moisture to deal with the heat. Partial shade also helps with dry soil.

Soil

Bearberry and pine needles
Common in forests, bearberry is often under pine trees or in shady spots. Source: Ed Suominen

In its native habitat, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi plants pop up in recently disturbed or rocky soil and tend to fill in slopes where water drainage is abundant. There it will form a sloping ground cover. Bearberry will tolerate and adapt to many different conditions, including salt in the soil, but it will not tolerate a soil ph outside of its preferred range. It needs well-draining acid soil with a pH between 4.5-5.5. 

Since it is salt tolerant and thrives in sandy acid soil, this bearberry makes frequent appearances along coastlines full of salt as well. 

Fertilizing

Bearberry plants can survive in poor soil conditions so fertilizing is not absolutely necessary. However, if you’d like to encourage your plant to spread in a ground cover fashion more quickly a fertilizer with a slightly higher nitrogen content will do just that. 

You may sacrifice some flowers and fruit in order for them to put on more green growth and spread. It’s important not to fertilize this plant more than once per year as it can easily be overwhelmed. 

Pruning

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi does not require pruning, but you may choose to prune away dead wood or employ some light pruning to reshape and form the plant and accentuate its dark green leaves. The best time of the year to prune this plant is in late spring or late summer after the bloom time has passed. You’ll want to make sure to leave the flowers on the plant to attract the butterflies! 

Propagation

A bearberry plant can be grown from seed. However, since it is such a slow grower, a much better option for this ground cover is to propagate it from stem cuttings. Fill a pot with sand-dominant soil. New plants can be started by cutting off a stem, dipping it into a rooting hormone powder, and then sticking it into moist sand to root in spring. 

If you’re growing from seed it’s important to keep in mind that they will require cold stratification to form sprouts. It’s recommended to store your seed in the refrigerator for 3 months before planting it out in the garden. Alternatively, you can sow them direct into the soil in the late fall and they should sprout from the ground in the spring. 

Troubleshooting

Ripe bearberries
Ripe bearberries are bright red and shiny. Source: AllieKF

As mentioned above, uva ursi is very drought tolerant once established, requires little to no fertilizing, no pruning, and is a very low maintenance green ground cover planting that will fill and add interest to your landscape. There are a few issues worth noting, however. 

Growing Problems

The most common growing problem occurs when the soil pH requirements are not met. Bearberry will show signs of stress if the pH in the soil is too high. The leaves may turn bronze, it may cease to put on new growth, and may not form flowers at all. It’s important to note that the leaves will turn bronze naturally in late fall moving into winter, however, if the foliage is browning or reddened during the spring and summer this can be an indicator that the soil ph needs to be raised. 

The acidity of the soil can be raised with a soil acidifier that can be found at your local nursery or big box garden store. Follow the instructions on the back of the package. 

Winter burn can is known to affect evergreens when they experience long periods of drought alongside frozen ground in the winter which prohibits their ability to replace water lost through the process of photosynthesis. As the burns spread, leaves may turn brown and die. 

Avoid planting new plants in windy areas to prevent the additional loss of moisture from the soil during the late fall and winter or apply mulch to help retain it. Prune away dead wood if new growth does not reappear and form in your garden in the spring. 

Pests

Aphids are the most common pest for these plants because of their succulent foliage and fruit. In a home garden, the best way to battle aphids is to spray them off of your plant with a blast of water as soon as you spot them. 

To prevent them from returning and/or overtaking your plants creating an environment that includes a variety of flowering plants will attract pollinators and other beneficial insects that love to munch on aphids, like ladybugs for example. In more severe infestations neem oil or insecticidal soaps can also do the trick. 

Diseases

Root rot is the most common fungal disease to affect bearberry plants. They do not like to be in standing water so providing them with well-draining soil will help avoid this issue. Planting them in the right soil helps too. However, if you notice wilting even though it has received plenty of water, mushy stems, and a lack of new growth then this can indicate root rot. 

Letting your plant dry out completely before watering it again can help starve the fungus. The application of copper fungicides has mixed reviews when it comes to treating root rot. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Cluster of bearberry flowers
A cluster of bearberry flowers in bloom. Source: Aquila-chrysaetos

Q: Are bearberry berries poisonous?

A: Yes and no. These fruits do contain hydroquinone which can be toxic and build up in the liver. For this reason, individuals with liver disorders should not consume bearberry. It is advised to not ingest more than 10-20 grams of bearberry at any one time. Symptoms of bearberry toxicity usually start with nausea. 

Q: What does bearberry taste like?

A: It has been described as tasting mildly sweet and crisp, similar to an apple. The fruit is mostly tasteless when eaten raw, but cooking them brings out its flavor. 

Q: What animal eats bearberry?

A: As its name would suggest, bears! But other small mammals and birds eat them as well. 

Q: Is bearberry a native plant?

A: Bearberry is native to circumboreal regions across the globe like Canada, Russia, Finland, etc. 

Q: How do you plant bearberry?

A: It can be started from seeds in early fall (the seeds prefer a period of stratification) or propagated from stem cuttings.

Q: Is bearberry easy to grow?

A: Yes, its most important requirement is the proper soil acidity, otherwise it is very low maintenance. 

Q: Is bearberry an evergreen?

A: Yes it is an evergreen shrub.

Q: Will bearberry grow in clay soil?

A: It can, but prefers sandy soils. 

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