November 11, 2010


The name of this woody ground cover just delights me.  This is commonly called Kinnikinnik, one of the longest palindromes in English, and just enjoyable to say.  Some spellings put a "ck" in there, but what fun is that?  It wrecks the palindrome.

Then there is its botanical name, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  I am not making this up.  Arkto is Greek for bear, and staphyle means a bunch of grapes.  Uva also denotes grapes, and ursi is of course Latin referring to bear.  This all translates to Bearberry berry-bear.  Yogi couldn't have said it better.  But just call it Bearberry, which is its other common name.
I put this groundcover along my walk leading to the front door, chiefly so I could tell visitors what it's called. 

But it surprised me with virtues beyond a funny name.  In summer it has tiny, glossy green leaves that catch the sun and sparkle.  In spring it has little heather-like flowers that are pink and delicate.  It's a good thing this planting is along the walk, so you are close enough to see the tiny flowers.  They're hard to notice from any distance.

In winter it reliably keeps its leaves.  I've only seen a sprig or two of winterkill.  It gets reddish brown without getting dull colored.  It has red berries, but neither the birds nor the bears like them despite being named Bearberry.  I think it's a food of last resort when all else is gone in the coldest regions.  This plant is hardy to zone 2.

Kinnikinnik spreads easily.  I started with three plants, then added two more.  They filled in effortlessly, just where I wanted them, and then softly spilled over the edge of the walk.  It spreads by rooting where the expanding woody stems touch soil, but is easily controlled with a snip or two if it wanders where you don't want it to go.  As my patch shows, it will definitely cover some ground.

The cultivar I planted is 'Massachusetts'.  Kinnikinnik is like heathers: it wants dry, infertile, crappy soil that is quite acidic.  'Massachusetts' is better at tolerating wetter soil, but the best advice is to ignore this plant, and don't water or fertilize it.  Most sources say it is hard to transplant and slow growing, but my plants didn't read that.  They have been easy to put in, and fast to grow as long as I left them alone.

Limbing up the Japanese maple this summer will allow the green mat to spread underneath it and cover all the area in this square between the walk and the front stoop.

Kinnikinnik has never failed to entertain me as people ask "what is that glossy green mat in front?"  On my cue, I smile and rattle off "oh, that's Kinnikinnik.  You know, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  Bearberry berry-bear."  Mostly they nod, move on, and stop asking me the names of my plants.
Blooming in May.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Massachusetts' In MoBot's database.


  1. Fabulous names ... both the common and the botanic! Love the idea that you've planted in a spot that will have everyone asking what it's called!!!

    It certainly does have gorgeous little flowers ... this groundcover will look terrific under that maple.

  2. I've heard of bear berry, but never seen it used so well - very nice! I'm thinking it might be perfect in that strip between street and sidewalk...

  3. Hi Laurrie, I saw this at a demonstration garden last year and loved it as well. It really is a subtle beauty.

    Glad to hear it likes such crappy soil. :) It may be just perfect for the front of my house near the gigantic blue spruce.

  4. Bernie, thanks. It was never meant to be a focal point, the Japanese maple is that. But it kind of steals the show on its own now.

    Cyndy, lots of sun and dry sandy conditions... it could be perfect in the strip (melting snowpiles from the plowed street in winter and spring might be a dampness issue though?)

    Garden Ms. S, if your blue spruce does not shade it too much it will do well. It does want sun. It really is subtle but nice.

  5. What a nice plant! I hadn't heard of it before. Perfect both in looks and name. :)

  6. sweetbay, I love learning about new plants from other bloggers, and I'm glad I introduced one to you!

  7. The word which you have discussed over here as Kinnikinnik is very nice. And you are really saying true this can be largest palindrome in English.

  8. Ron, it really is an amusing name!


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