This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Corolla ovate and urn-shaped, with a short, revolute, five-toothed limb; stamens ten, included within the corolla; anthers with two rellexed awns on the back near the apex, opening by terminal pores; drupe berry-like, with five to ten seed-like nutlets. Specific character. - Trailing; leaves thick and evergreen, obovate or spatulate, entire, smooth; fruit red. (Dr. Gray in Manual of Botany. See also Wood's Class Book ; Watson's Botany of 40th Parallel; Botany of California Geological Survey.)
HIS pretty spring flower is popularly called the "Bear-Berry." As such it was known all over Northern Europe, where it also grows wild, long before botany was a science and Linnaeus, the great botanical "Adam," gave intelligent names to vegetable things. Thus it came that its generic name, Arctostaphylos, compounded from the Greek, and signifying "Bear Berry," is derived from the common name, as also is the Latin specific term Uva-ursi. It is remarkable that the generic, specific, and common names, though representing three languages, all mean the same thine, - a, circumstance that does not often occur in botanical nomenclature. The plant received the name because the bears are said to be fond of the fruit, and the writer of this has had evidence in the mountains of Colorado that this fondness is not a myth. Birds are also fond of the berries, and in Europe especially they are said to be a common food with game. There is no pleasant taste in them to human experience. They are astringent, and this quality gives medical value to them in treating diseases of the kidneys, and where it is desirable to check excessive secretions of mucus. The whole plant, indeed, partakes somewhat of this quality, and is used in the North of Europe for dyeing gray and black, and for tanning the finer kinds of leather.
The botanical relationship of the Bear-Berry is with the Arbutus, from which it is distinguished by having but a single bony seed in a cell. Indeed it was known as Arbutus Uva-ursi by the older botanists, - those who maybe familiar with the true Arbutus will readily recognize the similarity of the flowers, - and it is almost to be regretted that it has not been kept in this genus for the sake of the many poetic associations connected with the Arbutus Uncdo, which has given the popular character to the family name.
"Glowing bright Beneath the various foliage, wildly spreads The arbutus, and rears his scarlet fruit Luxuriant mantling o'er the craggy steeps."
This description of the true straw berry tree, "Arbutus," certainly fits our Bear-Berry much better than it does the Epigcra repcns, to which our people, determined to connect our flora in some way with European memories, have given the name of "Trailing Arbutus," although it has no berry at all. The Bear-Berry has, however, an association with Indian history, as it is the "Kinnikinnick" of the Western races, who smoke it, and believe the practice secures them from malarial fevers. Still, it is almost a pity that the name of "Trailing Arbutus" has been given to the Epigaea repens, for, as the Bear- Berry is so nearly an Arbutus, and of a perfectly trailing habit, it would be much more applicable to it; but perhaps, if flowers have the affections poets sometimes attribute to them, it was generous in this plant to give up, or rather lay no claim to the name, as whatever might be its own legitimate rights, it is so universally known as the Bear-Berry that it has no great need of the other. The berries are indeed the most striking feature of the plant. The chief resemblance to the real Arbutus is in its beautiful white, shining, wax-like flowers. The buds are formed towards the apex of the branchlets in the autumn, and remain in readiness to open as soon as the earliest call of spring is heard. Though the flowers are generally of a smooth, waxy white, they do not seem constantly so, for Mr. Coleman observes that the "corolla and stamens are hairy, in specimens growing at Grand Rapids and other parts of Michigan," and furthermore, that "the margins of the leaves are ciliate, and the petioles and branches pubescent." These facts are very interesting as indicating that, although the plant has so great a geographical range and seems always the same, it may break up in the course of time and form several species.
In its geographical relations there is much to interest the student. Dr. Gray says it is found trailing over rocks and bare hills in the North, and this is, probably, the experience of most collectors. In New Jersey, however, where it is very common, it is generally found growing in sandy pine barrens, and rarely, if at all, on the hills. In Pennsylvania, it grows chiefly along the Delaware, opposite to New Jersey, and in spots that have evidently, from the number of New Jersey plants and the geological character of the soil, been cut off in ancient times from what is now that State, by changes in the river-bed. In the West, it is also found on the sandy shores of the great lakes. On the western side of Lake Michigan, it collects the dry, blowing sands in winter, and the new growth pushes through in spring, in this way increasing in size from year to year, at length forming hillocks of many feet high. The effect in spring, when these hillocks are covered with blossoms, must be very beautiful, and the writer of this can testify to the unique appearance in autumn when the holly-like berries upon them have ripened. The Bear-Berry does not seem to be abundant in Ohio, but has been found by Mr. Beardslee near Sandusky. It is found along the Potomac, and though not referred to by Chapman in his "Southern Flora," is reported from Hillsville, in Virginia, by Dr. Haller, and, no doubt, exists much further South.
The Bear-Berry has the reputation of being opposed to garden culture ; but, borrowing a hint from Nature along the lakes, a frame to hold sand was placed around the plant and filled up till only the branch points were left above. Since then it is one of the most luxuriant plants in the writer's garden. To increase the plants, the young stems are drawn up through the hole in the bottom of a flower-pot, the pot filled and sunk in the sand, and suffered to remain without further care for a year or so, when they are separated from the parent and helped to set up for themselves in sand-boxes in the garden.
Mr. E. Hall reports that the plant is very abundant in the coast ranges of hills in Oregon, and is generally diffused through the State. In the Rocky Mountains it is also very abundant, but, according to the writer's own observations, chiefly along the hillsides, where a considerable quantity of disintegrated rock had accumulated.
The fondness of the birds for the berries has, no doubt, aided its distribution, for it is found in tolerable abundance in almost all northern countries, in the language of the " Botany of the Californian Geological Survey," "extending round the world." Though abundant in Oregon, it hardly reaches California, however, where other species replace it.
The flowers, in some European works, are represented as of a rosy pink, but all that we have seen in our country have simply a rosy mouth to the white, waxy corolla, thus really giving it greater beauty than if it were of one uniform tint. Though there are several flowers in one cluster, we have never seen more than one berry mature. Why the remainder are barren is not quite clear. Our drawing was made from a Michigan specimen, in flower on the 26th of April, showing how early it comes into bloom.