Uva Ursi Benefits, Uses & History

Herb fans and readers of our website alike will be well aware of how passionate we are about sharing our knowledge of all things herb-related.

It can be like a minefield trying to trudge your way through the world of herbology, especially when you realize that amongst all the herbs that are good for you are some poisonous plants that should be avoided.

It can become overwhelming trying to find out what herbs are good for you and what herbs aren’t 

That’s where we come in. We want to use our extensive knowledge to form a sort of herb library that you can refer back to when you need it. The herb in question today is one that you may not have heard of before – Uva Ursi.

This mysterious herb is pretty cool and we can’t wait to tell you all about it. 

So, whether you are a newbie to herbology in general, or just want to find out a bit more about the benefits of Uva Ursi, this article has got your back!

We will be exploring what it is, the history of it, what it does, and any potential side effects if you were to use it. 

What is Uva Ursi? 

Uva Ursi is the name given to a species of plant in the Arctostaphylos genus. Arctostaphylos is a Greek word and translates to a bunch of grapes and is in reference to the fact that the flowers and berries grow in clusters, resembling a bunch of grapes. 

As well as this, the name also refers to the animal, the bear. As such, it is no surprise that many of the species of Arctostaphylos are actually what we know as bearberries. In fact, Uva Ursi is actually a Latin word that means the same, literally translating to the grape of the bear. 

Other names of Uva Ursi include Kinnikinnick (this translates to ‘smoking mixture’ in the Algonquin language as a reference to the fact that it was once smoked with tobacco in pipes), mealberry, fox plum, hog crawberry, barren myrtle, sandberry, and mountain box. 

The Uva Ursi is prevalent in the North of America and many parts of Canada but is considered endangered in several states within the Midwest of America. Around the world, it is widespread in the North but is much less common in the South, except at high altitudes. 

The leaves of the Uva Ursi are evergreen and the plant is a small shrub. It is woody and can be referred to as a groundcover shrub. The leaves of the Uva Ursi are small but are thick and feel quite stiff.

They are also very shiny, as is the fruit it produces. The fruit in question is a red berry. These grow out of flowers. The flowers appear in spring and are white or pink, depending on the plant. In summer the berries grow. 

The berries are referred to as drupes and they can actually persist until early winter as they are hardy against the elements. They are edible, with a bitter taste when eaten raw but sweeter when cooked or dried. 

Whilst they are edible to people, they are mostly eaten by bears and other animals (hence the nickname of bearberry). That being said, they are popular berries to be used as herbal remedies (more on this later). 

What is the history of Uva Ursi? 

Uva Ursi has long been used in America, and was a favorite of Native Americans for a number of reasons such as in dyes, smoking in pipes, and as food.

Of course, we will be exploring these uses in more detail a little later in the article, but we just wanted to immediately draw your attention to the fact that Uva Ursi has been popularly used throughout history. 

As well as this, it also has a history of being used for medicinal purposes too. For example, for centuries it has been used by indigenous people and the First Nations people as tea or as extracts to help with a variety of ailments.

Of course, it is used for much the same these days too, but perhaps less so because of the introduction of modern medicine. 

Interestingly, it is thought to have been first documented in a book called The Physicians of Myddfai. This was a Welsh 13th-century herbal (this is the name given to a book about herbs and their uses). 

This indicates that it was widespread throughout northern regions of Europe, including Wales and Britain as a whole just as much as it was in North America. As we know, it may have been used before this, and it is uncertain of exactly when it was first discovered.

Uva Ursi in folklore

The use of Uva Ursi can often be seen to feature in folklore. This is not surprising when considering how popular it was among the First Nations and this is where many wonderful folklore tales come from. 

Perhaps most famous is the use by the First Nations. Within America, the use of Uva Ursi also exists in folklore and history. 

It was thought to have been an important ingredient in various smudges (the act of using incense and smoke to cleanse and prepare for prayer) and smoke prayers. Native Americans would use it alongside other types of herbs for smudging to pray to the Great Spirit. 

Another popular folklore belief is the fact that Marco Polo believed the plant was used as a diuretic in Chinese medicine. Of course, it was used for this purpose by more than just the people in China!

As well as this, the link bearberry in particular has to Welsh folklore is interesting! It was first documented on paper, as you know, in the Physicians of Myddfai book.

This very book is connected to a Welsh legend about Rhiwallon whose mother rose from a lake to tell him he was going to become a healer.

Rhiwallon did indeed become a healer (or doctor) and is said to have been the author (or at least one of the authors) behind The Physicians of Myddfai herbal book. 

This indicates that Uva Ursi has a rich and legendary history, not only in the United States and Canada but also much further afield, too.

Of course, folklore, mythology, and legends should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the fact remains that many of these things did actually happen (well…disregarding the person rising from a lake!), indicating that Uva Ursi, particularly bearberries, has been in use for many centuries. 

What is Uva Ursi used for? The methods of using Uva Ursi 

Uva Ursi can be used in many different ways. The methods of using it may vary depending on the culture that is using it, or what the person is using it for.

As we have mentioned before, it has been used for smoking with tobacco in a pipe, as well as smoking in a smudge or in incense. This is certainly a popular way to use it, especially amongst the First Nations people. 

As well as this, it is also used for medicinal benefits. As such, there are many methods of taking this herb. Uva Ursi can be used as capsules that can be bought in health stores and over the counter.

You can use Uva Ursi as drops. Uva Ursi can also be purchased in a dried form to use as tea and as a tincture to take as needed (according to instructions of course). 

It is used for a variety of reasons, usually health-related. It is especially heralded for its supposed effects on urinary tract infections, as a diuretic, and even as a menstrual symptom reliever. 

In fact, its most popular use is to help urinary tract infections, with many people claiming it to be more effective than other herbal supplements meant for this. Certainly, it can be helpful in preventing UTIs if you are someone who has recurring infections.

However, it is less effective when a person already has a UTI, and certainly not recommended over antibiotics

That being said, there has not been much in the way of research done on the use of Uva Ursi to treat urinary tract infections, and it should certainly not be chosen over antibiotics, especially because of the risk of kidney infection if your UTI goes untreated. 

It may also be used for its supposed skincare benefits such as skin lightening, helping dark spots, and blurring freckles. As such, it is often an ingredient in skincare products such as creams and moisturizers. 

Some people also use Uva Ursi as a weight loss supplement. However, the use of Uva Ursi as a weight loss supplement is doubted and is not recommended. The reason for this is because it is a diuretic, which is a very dangerous form of losing weight! 

Can you cook with Uva Ursi? 

You can cook with Uva Ursi but it is not generally recommended. It is actually classed as being too unpalatable for human consumption unless it is dried or boiled.

Even after drying or boiling, it is still only recommended that you consume it in small amounts or use it for tea or herbal tinctures. 

That being said, if you are set on using Uva Ursi in your recipes, it may be worth looking into some different types of tea recipes. Uva Ursi can be used in conjunction with many other herbs and flowers.

You may find a delicious flavor pairing, as well as something that will give you excellent health benefits. 

What are the benefits of using Uva Ursi? 

It is thought that there are a number of desirable health benefits associated with the use of Uva Ursi, especially on our physical health. 

We have discussed a number of these already but we thought it may be helpful to see all of the supposed health benefits laid out in a list for you to refer to when needed. 

Bear in mind that as with all herbal remedies, advice should be sought from a doctor first, especially if you are experiencing ailments and illnesses that may need modern medicine. 

There are also some side effects you should bear in mind that we will discuss in the next section. For now, here are the benefits of using Uva Ursi: 

  • Of course, the use of Uva Ursi for UTIs is the most popular these days. It is thought to relieve painful UTI symptoms and prevent recurring bouts.
  • It is a diuretic meaning it can help you to urinate or pass excretion if you are currently struggling. However, before you use this you should seek medical advice. As well as this, the diuretic properties have led to some people using Uva Ursi for weight loss. This is very dangerous, however, and should not be used for this reason.
  • Some people who experience menstrual cramps recommend the use of Uva Ursi supplements to relieve the pain and other menstrual symptoms. Again, consult a doctor first and bear in mind that the only study for this was done on animals.
  • It is beneficial for use in skin care products because of its effect on dark spots and pigmentation. The arbutin is thought to help lighten the skin. 

What are the side effects and risks of using Uva Ursi? 

As with any medicine, herbal or otherwise, there are a number of side effects and risks associated with the use of Uva Ursi. these are as follows:

  • It should not be used for longer than 2 weeks, no matter what reason you are using it!
  • It is not safe for use in pregnant people, those who are nursing, and children.
  • It is not as effective as antibiotics in UTIs, so if your symptoms worsen, consult a doctor!
  • In high doses, Uva Ursi can cause liver damage, convulsions, and breathing issues. These can all be fatal. For this reason, consult a physician before using it if you are unsure of its suitability to you, and always follow the dosage advice on the packet. Never take it for a prolonged period of time (over 2 weeks).