Red bearberry is a prostrate shrub, covering large patches in forests and thickets and low-to-mid elevation areas in Denali. The species has upturned leathery obovate leaves that turn crimson red in fall, as well as bright red fruits when ripe. The leaves are alternately arranged, obovate to oblanceolate, leathery and reticulate, and more or less finely crenate on margins with sparsely ciliate margins. Leaves are green, often with reddish veins in summer, especially towards the tip, and turn scarlet in fall. A twig will have 2-5 perfect flowers in a terminal cluster. The flowers are white to cream, slightly translucent at the base. The flower is urn-shaped, gradually narrowing to a constriction and small lobes at the tip. Red bearberry has bright red berries, as the name implies. The best way to distinguish A. rubra from the very similar and closely-related A. alpina is by the color of its bright red fruit. Other characters that help identify A. rubra are thinner, often longer and less rounded leaves that are less cilated than those of alpine bearberry. These two still confuse experienced field botanists, and have been considered (by some) to be the same species in the past.
Arctostaphylos rubra is perennial and deciduous. Flowering occurs before the leaves open in early summer. Berries ripen in July-August. The leaves turn bright red in fall.
Red bearberry is insect pollinated. The fruits are red berries, eaten by bears and some birds. The berries contain nutlets 2.5-3.0 mm long. Seeds begin growing a year or two after sowing, requiring cold stratification in order to germinate (Fryer 2008). Plants also spread vegetatively, forming large mats.
Few people eat A. rubra berries, due to the lack of flavor, but it is an important source of food for wildlife. The berries have been used as an extender in seasons where more desirable berry crops produced poorly. The fruits from bearberries are also traditionally used medicinally by the Dena'ina and Tsimshian, chewed or consumed raw to address colds and flu, constipation, stomach troubles and symptoms from ulcers (Garibaldi 1999).
Red bearberry is an amphi-Beringian species, with a somewhat patchy distribution. In North America, this species grows from Alaska and across the full extent of Canada. Red bearberry is common and widespread in Alaska. Red bearberry also occurs widely in Denali in habitats ranging from muskeg, meadows and spruce forest to shrub tundra, more frequently found on the north side of the Alaska Range than to the south in the Park.
Red bearberry occurs at a large range of elevations. Its average occurrence is at 706 m, but it has the highest amount of cover at 500-700 m (ca. 0.5% cover). Its relation to slope is bimodal; with peaks on slopes under 4 degrees and at 20-28 degrees. It has 1.5% cover at 20-28 degrees, the highest cover of any species of this genus in that slope class.