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Kinnikinnick provides green during gray of winter season

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

Green is not a color you expect to see this time of year when you look out the window. Ponderosa pines are nearly totally dormant and give an appearance of being black when seen against the snow.

The only clearly green thing I see is a patch of kinnikinnick, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. This hardy plant is a woody vine that sprawls over the ground, seldom growing more than six inches high. There is only one species of this plant, but there are two subspecies in Colorado, one having glandular hairy young twigs and the other without the hairs.
This plant is a circumpolar plant that is found around the world. It is a common groundcover in open sunny forests. I first knew of this plant in the Canadian forests north of Buffalo, where it is generally known as bearberry. Here, where the snow often melts between storms, the kinnikinnick makes big green patches in the dead tan grass. A bit later, they are often buried beneath the snow until we get a few warm spring-like days and new growth turns them even greener, and they look like islands floating in a muddy sea.
I have always used a few twigs of kinnikinnick for a Christmas centerpiece on my table. Since it sets its flower buds in the late summer or early fall, they can easily be made to bloom early by bringing them inside. But they must be kept in water. Both the leaves and the red berries are very Christmas-y, but they turn black if not put into water.
The flowers when they open are small white waxen blooms that look like tiny Grecian urns hanging from the tips of the branches. One thing you should know is that this vine is very tough, and it is all but impossible to break off a twig without doing damage to the plant.
So, it is important to have a pair of pruning shears with you, so you can cut off a few branch tips. If you do not have any kinnikinnick on your own property, then if you have a friend or neighbor who does, you might ask for permission to cut a few twigs. Those dainty white flowers are a real sight to see on a cold winter day.
Aside from the pleasure this plant brings to human beings, the red berries are an important food source for many animals from small mammals to bears. In some areas, children call them chipmunk apples. Many birds eat them as well, but they seem to be a favorite of the Townsend’s solitaire.
The scientific name for this plant is most appropriate for arctos means bear and staphyle is a bunch of grapes. However, I have never found any reference to the meaning of its most common name, kinnikinnick, or of its derivation other than that it is a Native American name.
I think most people use it because it is fun to say, and like Mississippi, it’s fun to spell. However, some books spell it without the “c.” It is, nevertheless, a part of our mountain flora as well as a part of a country Christmas.
By the time you read this, Christmas will be over, and we will be looking forward to a new year. January usually brings our coldest weather, but I hope not this year as I feel like we have had enough already.
I shall eagerly await the January thaw. I wish you all a happy and healthy new year.