Medicinal Plants, Pacific Northwest
Kinnikinnick is a native ground cover plant much beloved by humans, the animals and birds. It is pronounced Kinn-ick-innick, and comes from the Algonquin first peoples and just means smoking mixture.
Although the plant was native here, it seems to have been the fur trader’s employees who brought the name west with them and it stuck. Its other common name is Bear Berry. Kinnikinnick can be found in most areas of the BC coastal region.
The bright red berries remain on its evergreen branches all winter used as winter food by bears, birds and other wild animals after other berries are gone. Birds can survive the winter by eating these berries.
While nourishing, the berries are mealy and bland, but the first peoples often gathered and stored them for winter use when dried. Sometimes the berries were fried in salmon or bear fat, or even boiled in soups. Commonly, both the first peoples and later the colonists dried and crushed the leaves, smoking them alone or mixed with tobacco or other leaves which accounts for its other name, indian tobacco.
In traditional herbal medicine, it is the leaves that are used. Gathered in the fall, dry and crush the leaves, then store in airtight containers or freeze, you can also make a tea to be used as a spring tonic and a diuretic. The leaves contain arbutin, a powerful astringent, which can have an antiseptic effect on the urinary tract and is very effective in treating kidney and bladder infections.
Europeans have used it since at least the 13th century and the First Peoples have used it for thousands of years. Kinnikinnick is rich in tannins and can be used in the tanning of leather.