The Kinnikinnick plant is a trailing dwarf shrub that has long flexible sprawling branches that forms a green mat sometimes several meters wide over its preferred dry sandy habitat. The leafy stems are covered with soft, white hairs. With its evergreen leaves and bright red berries, it brightens up winter woodlands and meadows.
The glossy dark green evergreen leaves are about 1 to 2 cm long. The leaves have a texture that is leathery, with smooth edges. The leaves are spatula-shaped being widest toward the tip.
Small white to pinkish, urn-shaped flowers appear in small hanging clusters at the branch tips. Around the opening of the flower is a ring of bright pink. They bloom from May to June. The dull, orange-red berry is dry and mealy, with a stone consisting of several nut-lets. This type of fruit is called a drupe, and it looks like a miniature apple.
Kinnikinnick is shade intolerant and is an indicator for forest managers of nutrient-poor, dry to very dry soils. Preferred habitat is dry forests and exposed, sandy areas such as sandhills, or often rocky sites. It is also found in somewhat wetter sites, and in disturbed areas such as roadsides.
The flowers bloom from May to June and the fruit matures by mid-August and remains on the plant throughout the winter. It also reproduces vegetatively from rooting stems, sometimes forming mats several meters wide.
It used to refer to any of several plants mixed with tobacco as extenders. Dry, ground leaves were mixed with the reddish bark of dogwood and smoked as tobacco by First Nations People. The leaves were mixed with commercial tobacco once they became available.
Although the berries are too dry to eat alone, several northwest First Nations tribes mixed them with fat or boiled them in soups. Because the berries remain on the branches all year and are rich in carbohydrates, they are important winter food for many animals.