Kinnikinnick is a widespread trailing prostrate dwarf shrub forming large mats in dry, open sites and aspen forest with mealy red berries. Plants form creeping mats, growing 5-10 cm tall. Stems have shedding brown bark. Leaves are leathery, alternate, oblanceolate to obovate in shape and noticeably net-veined with entire margins, dark green above and light green below. Inflorescences are racemes with one to several flowers. Flowers are perfect and urn-shaped, white to light pink, constricted at the tip with five slight lobes. The fruit is a reddish, mealy drupe. This species can be distinguished from the closely related red bearberry and alpine bearberry by the smaller, leathery leaves without ciliate margins, and the fruit is mealy, not juicy as it is in the bearberry species.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is perennial with evergreen leaves. It flowers in early summer and fruits in August.
The white bell flowers are an insect-attracting color, and provide nectar. According to Mosquin (1971), flowers are only pollinated by bumblebees. However, flowers are also self-compatible. Fruits are berry-like drupes, which are eaten by bears and birds, the seeds dispersed through the scat (Crane 1991). Kinnikinnick also spreads aggressively from rhizomes, forming thick colonies in favorable sites.
Dried leaves were smoked by Native Americans, but plants were also used for urinary diseases. The fruits are generally tasteless, but important forage for some mammals and birds. The berries have been used as an extender in seasons where more desirable berry crops produced poorly. The fruits from bearberries are chewed or consumed raw to address colds and flu, constipation, stomach troubles and symptoms from ulcers (Garibaldi 1999).
Kinnikinnick is a widespread circumpolar species occurring in Europe and northern Asia across North America south to Mexico. In North America, this species occurs in Alaska and all of the western states, the Great Lakes states and New England in the east. In Alaska, kinnikinnick occurs widely in suitable habitat south of the Brooks Range, primarily in the eastern areas of the State, not occurring in the Seward Peninsula, or much of Southwest except Kodiak, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians. This species range extends through central and southcentral Alaska to the southeast panhandle. Kinnikinnick occurs widely north of the Alaska Range in Denali, and is particularly common along the McKinley River. There is one site for the species known from the south side of the Alaska Range, near the Yentna River.
Though it ranges from 162 to 1156 meters in the Park, the bulk of occurrences and the highest level of cover for kinnikinnick is at 300-500 m. This species also has an interesting relationship with slope: the highest level of cover is on flat areas and on extremely steep slopes (above 28 degrees). There are more south-facing plots with kinnikinnick than north-facing sites.