Prescott National Forest, Arizona
A member off the Heath family (Ericaceae), this gorgeously tangled shrub is related to Cranberry and Madrone, and offers similarly healing attributes. It's a sister like plant to Uva-Ursi, who I first learned as Bearberry while living and learning in Oregon. According to many of my herbal predecessors, these two are practically interchangeable in their abilities. Michael Moore says that if one isn't growing in your neck of the woods, just look for the other, and it's probably there. "Remember that Manzanita is an analog to Uva Ursi; if Manzanita is uncommon where you live, go into the mountains and you will probably found Uva Ursi. Where the latter isn't found is usually where you find Manzanita. Only in the deserts are both missing." p 158.
Manzanita is one of the most striking plants growing in Arizona. The bark is a deep rusty red, somewhere between glossy and matte in its finish. The contrast with its lichen colored leaves and subdued hues of flower and berry gives this plant an ethereal feeling, as if it glows softly within its own aura, the way one might expect an angel to appear. Its branches tangle, and the way it creates dense thickets in high desert forests reminds me of one other thing only: the rhododendron forests of Appalachia.
I would not be surprised to learn that indigenous Arizonans have legeneds of elementals living within these Manzanita thickets, as I've heard innumerable tales of the little people in the Rhodies during my time on the Appalachian trail and at herbal and folkoric events in the South. According to Charles Kane, Peter Bigfoot, and Michael Moore, the Manzanitas can appear as small shrubs at around 3 ft, but with enough moisture, can grow up to 30. I surmise it would be a thoughtless task to lose one's way within the branches of a Manzanita so massive.
This plant has a specific affinity for healing and restoring the water organs in our bodies, namely kidneys, bladder, and womb. A primary constituent, Arbutin is a glycoside which is converted to hydroquinone in the presence of alkaline urine (7.0 on the pH scale). An acidic environment is preferred in these watery areas to keep E. Coli in check, the bacteria that when prolific, causes urinary tract infections. The leaves contain large amounts of tannin, an astringent constituent that lends itself to tightening tissues that have lost tone - due to age, childbirth, recurring infection, etc. This is likely the reason it is a known vasoconstrictor. Manzanita leaves therefore can be useful in excessive menstrual bleeding, as a post partum sitz bath to heal and tone injured vaginal and cervical tissue, and as a douche when the vaginal pH has become to alkaline as well.
When I first learned of Bearberry, I was so touched by its ethnobotanical uses that I created a username after it - Bearberry Smoke. That's because native people have used the leaf ceremonially and during council meetings as a smoking herb. According to what I read back in 2008 from a book I don't remember, it is the plant of brotherhood - promoting a shared feeling of mutual intent and respect. Michael Moores says that it is a common smoking herb, used with tobacco, other herbs, or on its own.
A few months ago I got to eat a bunch of the sweet flowers, and just yesterday I finally got to experience the tasty little berry, which can be made into jelly or drink. The berries are dry and full of seeds, but the flavor is sweet and sort of apple-like. I crunched on the seeds and swallowed them, which was fun for me. I felt like I got all the nutrition it had to offer. Its name Bearberry comes from the fact that bears really love Manzanita and Uva-Ursi berry season. If Bear is your medicine guide, or if you've seen Bear show up in dreams or in your yard lately, Manzanita may have some messages for you as well!
There are a few different ways to use this plant, but the leaf is going to provide the medicine. Dry it for future use, but also because it gets the conversion process going - where the arbutin breaks down into hydroquinone - which is the antibacterial phytochemical we're looking for when treating infections. Charles Kane says that drying the leaf and then dehydrating it in a small amount of water before its final preparation increases the availability of hydroquinone.
The dried leaf is used to make a tea, about 2 T per quart. Drink 3-4 cups per day for a few days up to two weeks, depending on the condition being treated. I’ve seen other authors recommend lower or higher ratios of herb to water, but this is what I use to get a medicinal strength infusion without too much astringency. Use a stronger infusion for vaginal douche or sitz bath, about 4 T per quart. Being so astringent, the tea can cause stomach or intestinal irritation, so when taken internally I and the mentioned authors all agree that combining it with mucilaginous herbs can reduce the chances of this irritation. Cornsilk, the mallows, plantain, okra, and hollyhock are some suggestions in this regard, with comfrey being a useful addition to external applications.
Kane and Moore both provide a tincture strength using the dried leaf as well, a 1:5 50% ratio, typical dose of 30-60 drops 3-4 x/ day.
Alter your strengths, doses, and delivery according to your client's needs, of course.
This is an invaluable herb for your herbal apothecary, and will be especially potent if it’s growing near its patient. We should have some for sale soon, so sign up for the Medicinal Muse to stay in the loop!
Peter Bigfoot, Useful Wild Western Plants, Page 74
Charles Kane, Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest, Pages 127-128
Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Page 156