Mealberry, Hog Cranberry, Sandberry
As a seventeen year old boy I spent a month canoeing and hiking the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico parks, my first exposure to the Northern Boreal ecosystem. It was a profound experience and my first opportunity to view boreal groundcovers such as Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Lowbush Blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium and Bunchberry Cornus canadensis.
Today Bearberry is one of my favorite groundcovers and plays a prominent part in my garden. I have utilized Bearberry in rock gardens and around the base of garden sculptures. One of my spring projects is to build a hypertufa sandcastle; Bearberry will play an important role. Bearberry can be placed along roadsides, driveways and sidewalks as it can tolerate winter salt.
Kinnikkinnick has all the characteristics for sustainable gardening: low maintenance, disease and insect resistance, drought and salt tolerant, deer and rabbit resistant and tolerant of wind and dry slopes. Even with all these wonderful characteristics Bearberry is relatively unknown and underutilized in my region. I recently talked about rock gardening and showed a slide of Bearberry to a group of gardeners and none could identify the plant. Much of my area soils are a sand-plain, deposited by the glacial river Warren, this environment is ideal for Bearberry. Utilized as erosion control it binds and stabilizes sand dunes.
A low growing evergreen shrub of erect branching twigs which emerge from long flexible prostrate stems. Intricately branching runners wind through crevices it often forms mats up to 3 feet wide and can travel 15 to 60 feet. The leaves turn burgundy red in the fall. Bearberry is sensitive to overhead watering, excessive leaf wetting turns leaf black and promotes dieback.
Fragrant, white and pink tingled bell-shaped flowers are borne in May followed later in the season by red berries. Birds love them a little mealy for humans.
Bearberry's stunning red stems are studded with small, glossy, evergreen leaves similar to another circumboreal groundcover Lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea which is a bog plant. It thrives within USDA zone 2-5, best protected by snowcover.
Bearberry is most often found growing on a hot, sunny slope or level area where the soil is well-drained, Ph range 4.5 to 7. I have found Bearberry growing on open rock outcroppings, under a canopy of Northern Red Oak, Big-tooth Aspen and pines of the northern boreal forest. Alongside an understory of shrubs; Juneberry, Hawthorn, Northern Bush Honeysuckle and Three-toothed cinquefoil Potentilla tridentate. It’s an excellent groundcover companion of Lowbush Blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium, Velvet-leaf Blueberry Vaccinium myrtillioides, Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens and Bristly sarsaparilla Aralia hispida.
I plant Bearberry about 24” apart and mulch with sawdust or turkey grit lightly to discourage weeds until they meld together. You can pinch for compact growth. Do not water or fertilize excessively.
A number of Bearberry selections are available, from the east coast ‘Massachusetts’ is a medium-sized cultivar. It produces large quantities of fruit. From the coastal mountains of the northwest comes ‘Point Reyes’ more heat and drought tolerant than other forms. ‘Vancouver Jade,’ by the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden is a fast growing plant with large glossy leaves. ‘San Bruno Mountain’ produces large fruits and thick, shiny foliage with a low spreading form. ‘Emerald Carpet’ may be more shade tolerant. ‘Woods compact’ or ‘Red’ is a dwarf variety with large fruit and reddish autumn foliage. ‘Big Bear’ has large, dark green leaves and big red fruits. We appear to lack selections for continental climates, an opportunity for an entrepreneurial horticulturalist.
This is a rewarding groundcover for poor soil, tough sunny areas. I highly recommend this boreal green wonder.