Alpine bearberry is a mat-forming prostrate dwarf shrub with leathery leaves and black berries. As the name implies, it is most common in the mountains. Branches are brown and the bark sheds, leading to a shaggy appearance. There are many persistent dead leaves along trailing branches. The leaves are alternately arranged and tightly packed along the stem. Leaves are obovate to oblanceolate, thick and strongly net-veined, with crenulate margins. The leaf base and winged petiole are ciliate. Leaves are dark green in summer, sometimes red-margined or veined, and then brilliant red in fall. Plants grow 2-3 small perfect flowers together at the end of a stem. The petals are fused into an urn-shape, white or pale yellow-green and transparent at the base. Flowers contain 10 stamens. Fruits are a black berry. This species is very similar to the closely-related red-fruited Arctostaphylos rubra, which some taxonomists have considered to be part of the same, but more broadly-defined, species as A. alpina in the past. Before the berries develop, A. alpina can best be distinguished by its somewhat thicker, rounder and more densely ciliate leaves and general location – usually growing in dry gravelly, exposed sites as compared to more protected, moist and shady sites at lower elevation for A. rubra.
This species flowers before leaf set in early summer (mid-May), and fruits are produced in July. Leaves turn bright red in autumn and tend to persist on the plant.
Alpine bearberry is insect pollinated and its flowers are bisexual. Flowers develop into black, round berries. There are 2-5 seeds per fruit (Aiken et al. 2003). The common name for this and other related species is 'bearberry,' as the fruit is commonly eaten by bears, possibly also grouse and other birds. Plants also spread vegetatively, forming large mats.
The fruits can be eaten, but are rather flavorless. The berries have been used as an extender in seasons where more desirable berry crops produced poorly. The leaves were widely used as a medicinal tea by Native peoples, serving as an astringent and used for urinary and kidney ailments. The fruits from bearberries are chewed or consumed raw by Athabascans for colds and flus, and by the Tsimshian for constipation, stomach troubles and symptoms from ulcers (Garibaldi 1999).
Arctostaphylos alpina has a circumpolar, arctic-alpine range, in North America this species ranges east to Newfoundland along the Canadian low arctic, barely reaching New England in the east and southern British Columbia in the west. This species occurs in suitable habitat throughout upland and alpine areas in Alaska, as well as in lowland tundra on the western coast and the western islands. This species is common and widespread in Denali, on both sides of the Alaska Range.
This species frequency peaks at 900-1100 meters, reaches cover of over 1%. Common on all aspects, but highest cover is on northern slopes. Most frequent on slopes of 12-20 degrees (20-28 degrees not far behind, average incline 12.5 degrees).