Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a native plant belonging to the Ericaceae family. It thrives in mountainous and hilly regions, including the Alps and the Apennines, predominantly in central to northern Italy, extending to Campania, and is rarer in the far south. This plant is famous and appreciated for its therapeutic properties, particularly its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects on the urinary system, primarily due to the presence of arbutin. It is, for example, one of the best natural remedies for cystitis.
The benefits of bearberry are also recognized by the European Pharmacopoeia, making it a plant worth studying and knowing.
Description of Bearberry
Bearberry is a small evergreen shrub with leaves that persist for approximately three years. Its stem, which can grow up to 1 meter long, trails along the ground and branches abundantly. The branches are erect. The plant develops adventitious roots from its trailing stem, giving it great resistance. Young shoots are pink and pubescent, while older stems are dark and woody.
The leaves of bearberry are arranged alternately on the branches, with obovate or spatulate shapes, rounded and blunt tips. The base narrows gradually and ends with a very short petiole. The margin is always entire, and the leaves have a leathery texture. The upper surface is smooth and shiny, while the lower surface is granular in texture. Leaf veins are not very prominent.
The flowers of bearberry are borne on small racemes, hanging downward at the ends of the branches. The calyx is divided into 5 sub-triangular lobes. The corolla, tubular and urn-shaped, divides into 5 lobes at the mouth, which fold outward. The flowers can be white or pink.
The fruit of bearberry is a spherical berry, red in color, with mealy flesh, highly acidic, and containing kidney-shaped seeds. The berries are not toxic, but due to their extreme acidity, they are unpleasant to eat or process.
Where Does Bearberry Grow?
Bearberry does not grow in low-lying areas but prefers hills and mountains, especially sunny meadows, rocky areas, and pastures.
Harvesting and Storing Bearberry
The part of bearberry used for its medicinal properties is the leaves. These are harvested in late summer by plucking the better-developed ones from the branches, being careful to avoid picking the very small and tender leaves. The leaves should be dried in thin layers, in the shade and a well-ventilated area. Optimal storage is in glass jars, but paper bags work as well.
Active Ingredients in Bearberry
Bearberry exerts its medicinal properties thanks to a long list of active ingredients. Here are the main constituents found in its leaves: tannins, ursolic acid triterpenes, three glycosides (ericolin, arbutin, and methylarbutin), potassium salts (mostly hydroquinone phenol and its derivatives). The most important active ingredients are arbutin and hydroquinone, which have been shown to inhibit the growth of numerous pathogenic microorganisms in vitro, including Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella typhimurium, Serratia marcescens, and Staphylococcus aureus.
Properties of Bearberry and Therapeutic Indications
Bearberry is a plant characterized by specific and genuinely effective properties, namely: astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant actions. These leaf properties explain their action on the genitourinary system, particularly in treating pyelitis, cystitis, urethritis, nephritis, and, more generally, incontinence, urinary retention, prostatic hypertrophy, and leukorrhea. Bearberry leaves do not have pronounced diuretic properties, but their anti-inflammatory and anti-catarrhal action promotes the normalization of excretory functions. It is advisable to use it for the above-mentioned problems when antibiotic treatment is not considered essential. This is why the numerous bearberry-based preparations (supplements, mother tincture, capsules, etc.) found in herbal medicine shops should be used under medical supervision.
For domestic use, always under medical supervision, a simple infusion can be prepared using 1.5 g of dried leaves in 100 ml of water, to be consumed in 2-3 cups a day.
It is important to note that if bearberry’s active ingredients are used inappropriately, they can lead to irritations of the digestive tract (nausea and vomiting) and even allergic reactions. These issues can arise from prolonged use. Therefore, if urinary tract infection symptoms persist despite treatment, it is necessary to discontinue the treatment and seek antibiotic therapy. In any case, the use of bearberry-based preparations is contraindicated during pregnancy, breastfeeding, in children under 12 years old, and in individuals with kidney diseases.