Arctostaphylos alpina, with the common names alpine bearberry, mountain bearberry, or black bearberry is a dwarf shrub in the heather family Ericaceae. The basionym of this species is Arbutus alpina L.
Distribution and habitat
Arctostaphylos alpina is a procumbent shrub usually less than 6 inches (15 cm) high with a woody stem and straggling branches. The leaves are alternate and wither in the autumn but remain on the plant for another year. The leaves are stalked and are oval with serrated margins and a network of veins. They often turn red to scarlet in autumn.
The flowers are in groups of two to five, white or pink and urn-shaped and about 3 to 5 mm (0 to 0 in) long. They have five sepals, five fused petals with five small projecting lobes, ten stamens and a single carpel. The fruits are spherical, 9 to 12 mm (0 to 0 in) long, initially green, then red and finally glossy black and succulent when ripe. This plant flowers in June.
Arctostaphylos alpina has a circumpolar distribution. It is found at high latitudes, from Scotland east across Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland. Its southern limits in Europe are the Pyrenees and the Alps, in Asia, the Altay Mountains and Mongolia, and in North America, British Columbia in the west, and Maine and New Hampshire in the east. Its natural habitat is moorland, dry forests with birch and pine and hummocks covered in moss at the edges of bogs.
Arctostaphylos alpina forms a symbiotic relationship life with fungi which supply it with nutrients such as phosphorus. The berries are appreciated by birds. (from wikipedia)
Heather family plants form a symbiotic relationship with fungus roots: the plants receive better nutrition from the soil through the fungus – especially phosphorous – and the fungus gets assimilation products, carbohydrates. Heather family plants usually team up with sac fungi (Ascomycota), but alpine bearberry and bearberry live with familiar edible mushrooms.
Unlike its evergreen relative bearberry, alpine bearberry’s leaves wither and die in the winter. The species’ autumnal blaze of flaming crimson is one of the most impressive end-of-summer shows, along with dwarf birch, blueberry and bog bilberry. Withered reddish brown leaves don’t fall but stay in the branch, protecting the plant’s buds: not from the cold but rather from growing too early in the event of a particularly warm late winter. Bearberry and alpine bearberry can be easily told apart on the basis of their flowers, but the plants do not bloom long on the fells. White, urceolate (pitcher-shaped) flowers burst out from behind last year’s withered leaves as soon as the snow has melted and the ground is very wet. In autumn the fruits of pollination appear in the shape of shiny black berries. Most of the crop is eaten by Lapland birds, which spread alpine bearberry’s seeds, but they are also a sweet treat for autumn ramblers too.
Arctostaphylos alpina (L.) Spreng.
Ericaceae (Heath Family)
USDA Symbol: ARAL2
USDA Native Status: L48 (N), AK (N), CAN (N), GL (N), SPM (N)
A densely branched, dwarf shrub, usually less than 6 in. tall. The bark is noticeably shredded, papery and reddish in color. Narrow, urn-shaped flowers are pinkish and are followed by a purplish-black berry. Oval leaves turn scarlet in fall and persist for some time.
The alpine bearberry has several uses for the Objibwa people:
It can be pounded and infused as an external wash for rheumatism.
A decoction of the bark may be taken for internal blood diseases.
The leaves are used for medicine ceremonies, and can be smoked to induce intoxication.
As well, the berries are edible. The Koyukon store them in grease or oil during the winter and eat them with fish or meat. (Native American Ethnobotany Database)