“Here, try this” my friend says, handing me a cup of planty-smelling tea. I drink it down, trusting her knowledge and care, and soon, everything changes.
This sounds like the beginning of a psychedelic journey, and I’ve had many that did start this way, but this is a different story.
It’s 1989, and I am living on my own for the first time, and experiencing a wicked UTI, sadly not for the first time. Since I was little I would get these infections, sometimes spreading up into my kidneys, often needing antibiotics and occasionally the hospital. Over the years I had tried everything that conventional medicine prescribed and had come to accept that this would just be a fact of my life forever.
I was lamenting this to a new friend I had met at a local herb shop in Boulder, where I had started spending time listening and learning from the staff and owners. My friend was a few years ahead of me in her herbal journey, and so she offered me a cup of tea made from Kinnikinnick, as it’s called in the West, which I have come to know as Uva Ursi in the years since.
Within an hour the pain was gone, and over the next few days I continued to drink the tea and marveled as my symptoms cleared up and my whole body started to feel better. All that from a few leaves she found on a hike, when so many doctors had nothing helpful to offer! I had already been curious about herbs, being a Nature-oriented kid, but now I was asking myself what else plants could heal, and how could I be a partner to them?
After that day, thanks to the tea and a few lifestyle changes, I never suffered from the extreme infections again, and soon I was deep into the rabbit hole of learning that led me to Paul, starting Al-Kemi, and doing the work I continue to this day. All thanks to an unassuming little ground cover and a wise friend who heard its voice and shared it with me.
Uva Ursi is a low-growing plant in the heather family, related to blueberries, rhododendron, cranberries, manzanita, and many other plants that are especially common in our area, since they all love the acid soil of the temperate rainforest. At the same time, unlike its more water-loving cousins, Uva Ursi can grow in dry forests and open areas alike, and I have found it everywhere we have lived, from Colorado to New Mexico to Oregon, as well as many places we’ve visited. Its range is the largest of any in its genus, and it’s found on most other continents, as well.
It’s a pretty plant, with shiny dark green leathery leaves and bright red berries which bears love to eat. Because of this, it’s also known as Bearberry, and in botanical nomenclature as Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, which means “Bear Grape (Greek) grape-of-bears (Latin)”.
The berries are abundant throughout the fall, before hibernation, and in late winter and early spring, when bears start to wake up. In fact, this story came to mind last week when I was hiking with our dog in our usual spot, visiting the Uva Ursi patch there, and loving the cheer of the vivid berries on an otherwise gloomy day.
The Algonquin used this plant in smoking mixtures and for smoke cleansing through smudging, and they called both Uva Ursi and mixtures containing it Kinnikinnick. Other herbs used with it varied by region, but could include Bee Balm, Angelica, tobacco, Mullein leaf, Yarrow, Yerba Santa, Oshá, and various Artemisias. These mixes could also be carried in pouches to protect the wearer, to be used as offerings, and packed with sacred objects to keep their energy pure.
Smoked alone or in a mixture, Kinnikinnick is mildly relaxing and intoxicating and relieves headaches. I always associate its effects with the deep relaxation of evening in the woods, since I’ve mostly enjoyed its smoke while camping, mixed with Yarrow and Mullein leaf when I could find them.
Internally, it is primarily used for its astringent and anti-microbial properties, the gifts that helped me so long ago. These effects are most directed at the urinary system and kidneys, but they can also help with digestive infections, especially when combined with directed herbs such as Turmeric or Yerba Santa.
Wherever it is directed, Uva Ursi first tones and tightens tissues so that they are less inflamed and reactive, and then it acidifies, which helps kill microbes in the same way as the more famous (but less effective) cranberry juice. In the longer term, it helps tissues heal and rebuild with its content of allantoin, the same regenerative chemical in comfrey, but here, with less potential liver impact.
Uva Ursi seems to work best as a concentrated extract like our Essence at first, to knock out the acute phase, in small frequent doses for just a few days to a week. Oregon Grape or Usnea can be added for an added anti-microbial punch.
Afterwards, a more gentle preparation like a tea can be used for a few days more to keep the repair work going and allow the tissues to fend off infection on their own. For this phase, it can be combined with soothing herbs like Shatavari or Marshmallow root.
Even though it is a very targeted and specific plant in its actions, Uva Ursi will always be one of my dearest favourites for the door that it opened for me to step through, into the world of healing plants and Spagyric medicine that we create from them. I will always be grateful to it for showing me the power that the green beings carry, and how I can partner with them to share their messages.