Here to return to
THE kinnikinick is a plant pioneer. Often it is the first plant to make a settlement or establish a colony on a barren or burned-over area. It is hardy, and is able to make a start and thrive in places so inhospitable as to afford most plants not the slightest foothold. In such places the kinnikinick’s activities make changes which alter conditions so beneficially that in a little while plants less hardy come to join the first settler. The pioneer work done by the kinnikinick on a barren and rocky realm has often resulted in the establishment of a flourishing forest there.
The kinnikinick, or Arctostaphylos Uva-Ursi, as the botanists name it, may be called a ground-loving vine. Though always attractive, it is in winter that it is at its best. Then its bright green leaves and red berries shine among the snow-flowers in a quiet way that is strikingly beautiful.
Since it is beautiful as well as useful, I had long admired this ever-cheerful, ever-spreading vine before I appreciated the good though humble work it is constantly doing. I had often stopped to greet it, — the only green thing upon a rock ledge or a sandy stretch, — had walked over it in forest avenues beneath tall and stately pines, and had slept comfortably upon its spicy, elastic rugs, liking it from the first. But on one of my winter tramps I fell in love with this beautiful evergreen.
The day was a cold one, and the high, gusty wind was tossing and playing with the last snow fall. I had been snowshoeing through the forest, and had come out upon an unsheltered ridge that was a part of a barren area which repeated fires had changed from a forested condition to desert. The snow lay several feet deep in the woods, but as the gravelly distance before me was bare, I took off my snowshoes. I went walking, and at times blowing, along the bleak ridge, scarcely able to see through the snow-filled air. But during a lull the air cleared of snow-dust and I paused to look about me. The wind still roared in the distance, and against the blue eastern sky it had a column of snow whirling that was dazzling white in the afternoon sun. On my left a mountain rose with easy slope to crag-crowned heights, and for miles swept away before me with seared side barren and dull. A few cloud lets of snowdrifts and a scattering of mere tufts of snow stood out distinctly on this big, bare slope.
I wondered what could be holding these few spots of snow on this wind-swept slope. I finally went up to examine one of them. Thrust out and lifted just above the snow of the tuft before me was the jeweled hand of a kinnikinick; and every snow-deposit on the slope was held in place by the green arms of this plant. Here was this beautiful vinelike shrub gladly growing on a slope that had been forsaken by all other plants.
To state the situation fairly, all had been burned off by fire and Kinnikinick was the first to come back, and so completely had fires consumed the plant-food that many plants would be unable to live here until better conditions prevailed and the struggle for existence was made less severe. Kinnikinick was making the needed changes; in time it would prepare the way, and other plants, and the pines too, would come back to carpet and plume the slope and prevent wind and water from tearing and scarring the earth.
The seeds of Kinnikinick are scattered by birds, chipmunks, wind, and water. I do not know by what agency the seeds had come to this slope, but here were the plants, and on this dry, fire-ruined, sun-scorched, wind-beaten slope they must have endured many hardships. Many must have perished before these living ones had made a secure start in life.
Once Kinnikinick has made a start, it. is constantly assisted to succeed by its own growing success. Its arms catch and hold snow, and this, gives a supply of much-needed water. This water is snugly stored beneath the plant, where but little can be reached or taken by the sun or the thirsty winds. The winds, too, which were so un friendly while it was trying to make a start, now become helpful to the brave, persistent plant. Every wind that blows brings something to it, — dust, powdered earth, trash, the remains of dead insects; some of this material is carried for miles.
All goes to form new soil, or to fertilize or mulch the old. This supplies Kinnikinick’s great needs. The plant grows rich from the constant tribute of the winds. The soil-bed grows deeper and richer and is also constantly outbuilding and enlarging, and Kinnikinick steadily increases its size.
In a few years a small oasis is formed in, or rather on, the barren. This becomes a place of refuge for seed wanderers, — in fact, a nursery. Up the slope I saw a young pine standing in a kinnikinick snow-cover. In the edge of the snow-tuft by me, covered with a robe of snow, I found a tiny tree, a mere baby pine. Where did this pine come from? There were no seed-bearing pines within miles. How did a pine seed find its way to this cosy nursery? Perhaps the following is its story: The seed of this little pine, together with a score or more of others, grew in a cone out near the end of the pine-tree limb. This pine was on a mountain several miles from the fire-ruined slope, when one windy autumn day some time after the seeds were ripe, the cone began to open its fingers and the seeds came dropping out.
The seed of this baby tree was one of these, and when it tumbled out of the cone the wind caught it, and away it went over trees, rocks, and gulches, whirling and dancing in the autumn sunlight. After tumbling a few miles in this wild flight, it came down among some boulders. Here it lay until, one very windy day, it was caught up and whirled away again. Before long it was dashed against a granite cliff and fell to the ground; but in a moment, the wind found it and drove it, with a shower of trash and dust, bounding and leaping across a barren slope, plump into this kinnikinick nest. From this shelter the wind could not drive it. Here the little seed might have said, “This is just the place I was looking for; here is shelter from the wind and sun; the soil is rich and damp; I am so tired, I think I’ll take a sleep.” When the little seed awoke, it wore the green dress of the pine family. The kinnikinick’s nursery had given it a start in life.
Under favorable conditions Kinnikinick is a comparatively rapid grower. Its numerous vine-like limbs — little arms — spread or reach out ward from the central root, take a new hold upon the earth, and prepare to reach again. The ground beneath it in a little while is completely hidden by its closely crowding leafy arms. In places these soft, pliable rugs unite and form extensive carpets. Strip off these carpets and often all that remains is a barren exposure of sand or gravel on bald or broken rocks, whose surfaces and edges have been draped or buried by its green leaves and red berries.
In May kinnikinick rugs become flower-beds. Each flower is a narrow-throated, pink-lipped, creamy-white jug, and is filled with a drop of exquisitely flavored honey. The jugs in a short time change to smooth purple berries, and in autumn they take on their winter dress of scarlet. When ripe the berries taste like mealy crab-apples. I have often seen chipmunks eating the berries, or apples, sitting up with the fruit in both their deft little hands, and eating it with such evident relish that I frequently found myself thinking of these berries as chipmunk’s apples.
Kinnikinick is widely distributed over the earth, and is most often found on gravelly slopes or sandy stretches. Frequently you will find it among scattered pines, trying to carpet their cathedral floor. Many a summer day I have lain down and rested on these flat and fluffy forest rugs, while between the tangled tops of the pines I looked at the blue of the sky or watched the white clouds so serenely floating there. Many a summer night upon these elastic spreads I have lain and gazed at the thick-sown stars, or watched the ebbing, fading camp-fire, at last to fall asleep and to rest as sweetly and serenely as ever did the Scotchman upon his heathered Highlands. Many a morning I have awakened late after a sleep so long that I had settled into the yielding mass and Kinnikinick had put up an arm, either to shield my face with its hand, or to show me, when I should awaken, its pretty red berries and bright green leaves.
Summer at an Altitude of 12,000 Feet
One morning, while visiting in a Blackfoot Indian camp, I saw the men smoking kinnikinick leaves, and I asked if they had any legend concerning the shrub. I felt sure they must have a fascinating story of it which told of the Great Spirit’s love for Kinnikinick, but they had none. One of them said he had heard the Piute Indians tell why the Great Spirit had made it, but he could not remember the account. I inquired among many Indians, feeling that I should at last learn a happy legend concerning it, but in vain. One night, however, by my camp-fire, I dreamed that some Alaska Indians told me this legend: —
Long, long ago, Kinnikinick was a small tree with brown berries and broad leaves which dropped to the ground in autumn. One year a great snow came while the leaves were still on, and all trees were flattened upon the ground by the weight of the clinging snow. All broad-leaved trees except Kinnikinick died. When the snow melted, Kinnikinick was still alive, but pressed out upon the ground, crushed so that it could not rise. It started to grow, however, and spread out its limbs on the surface very like a root growth. The Great Spirit was so pleased with Kinnikinick’s efforts that he decided to let it live on in its new form, and also that he would send it to colonize many places where it had never been. He changed its berries from brown to red, so that the birds could see its fruit and scatter its seeds far and wide. Its leaves were reduced in size and made permanently green, so that Kinnikinick, like the pines it loves and helps, could wear green all the time.
Whenever I see a place that has been made barren and ugly by the thoughtlessness of man, I like to think of Kinnikinick, for I know it will beautify these places if given a chance to do so. There are on earth millions of acres now almost desert that may some time be changed and beautified by this cheerful, modest plant. Some time many bald and barren places in the Rockies will be plumed with pines, bannered with flowers, have brooks, butterflies, and singing birds, — all of these, and homes, too, around which children will play, — because of the reclaiming work which will be done by charming Kinnikinick.