When hunters pursue upland game birds, bear, deer, elk, and other game species this fall they will also be within arm's reach of Montana's wild, native plants with some interesting cultural and medicinal histories.
Most Montanans know an antelope or an elk when they see one—so it is surprising how few feel confident identifying a wild plant. Only a short time ago, trappers, settlers and native people considered wild plants essential to their health and survival.
Among the most easily recognized native plants found in the outdoors are: huckleberries, chokecherries, wild raspberries and strawberries, buck brush, red dogwood, sagebrush, and the native grasses including bluebunch wheatgrass—Montana's state grass.
Also eye-catching and easy to identify is a shrub known as bearberry, or Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. Arktos is from the Greek for "bear", stafulh or staphyle for grapes. Uva means fruit, ursi means bear. Other common names for this plant are: kinnikinnick, crowberry, foxberry, hog cranberry, mountain box, and mountain cranberry.
Bearberry grows in well-drained, sandy, stony soils in mats of ground-hugging, small, bright evergreen leaves that are slightly cupped and feel leathery. Pale pink urn-shaped flowers form in the spring and ripen into smooth, glossy red berries that contrast cheerily with the evergreen, trailing branches of the bearberry shrub in fall and winter.
Bears, birds including grouse, rodents and other wildlife eat the berries produced by this luxuriant ground cover, a member of the heath family. The red bearberries are secure on the bush and last into spring—a welcome sight to bears just coming out of hibernation.
This is a good plant to begin practicing plant recognition with because it is so distinctive. While it is a little more challenging to pick out this time of year, before its red berries are evident, bearberry is plentiful year round. It is enjoyable to observe the exuberant way it flows over rocks and soil, binding the forest landscape into a visual whole.
In the days before manufactured medicine, bearberry was well known. Its bright red berries and evergreen branches were easily recognized. Indians often gathered and dried the red berries for winter, fried them in salmon or bear fat, or boiled them. The leaves were also dried, crushed and mixed with tobacco or other leaves and smoked. That accounts for the Indian, most likely Algonquin, name commonly used in Montana for bearberry--Kinn-ICK-innick or KINNY-kin-ICK. Most sources translate that to mean "smoking mixture." Its mealy, bland red berries are a survival food for wildlife today as they were hundreds of years ago.
People also made use of this plant in earlier centuries. Botanical sources say that the 13th Century Welsh knew the uses of bearberry. In the 1700s German herbologists recommended it and the London Pharmacopoeia printed in 1788 mentions it. Bearberry is commonly found throughout Europe, North America and Asia.
Hunters who come upon bearberry might enjoy recognizing this plant common to a deer or elk's mountainous landscape. Once bearberry becomes a familiar hunting partner, it is time to move on to learn to recognize another of the many interesting plant species easily sighted while hiking and hunting in Montana's wide-ranging terrain.