By: Bob Brett
Date: May 26, 2000
Long before the BC Government’s short-lived ban against public smoking, First Nations people were stuffing kinnikinnick leaves into their pipes and happily puffing away. Smoking kinnikinnick may still be legal, but it’s doubtful many Whistlerites – even Ross Rebagliati – have tried it.
Luckily, kinnikinnick has lots of other positive qualities. Its urn-shaped flowers are a beautiful pink, it produces brilliant red berries, and its glossy evergreen leaves provide a perfect backdrop for both. When not in flower or fruit, kinnikinnick might be mistaken locally for falsebox or twinflower, but only kinnikinnick has leaves with no teeth.
The presence of this trailing shrub is indicative of well-drained soils which are prone to drought for at least part of the growing season. Kinnikinnick forms large mats on dry sites from Whistler’s valley bottom to the alpine, and is also a favourite plant for gardens. It is often found with wild strawberry at low elevations (like the Emerald Forest gravel pit beside Tapley’s Farm), and with common juniper at high elevations.
Gardeners wanting to grow kinnikinnick are likely best to use cuttings rather than seeds. (If you want instant results, please go to your local nursery rather than transplanting whole plants from the wild.) If you insist on trying to get seeds to germinate, forget treating them gently since they’ll require, among other severe measures, a bath in sulphuric acid.
Kinnikinnick must have warranted a second glance from the people who provided its double-barrelled names. The Algonquian common name may make you wonder what a single “kinnick” is. Not to be outdone, European botanists included two translations for “bearberry” in its scientific name: Arctostaphylos (from Greek) and uva-ursi (from Latin). Oblivious to the redundancy, bears (and grouse) really do eat the berries.