FEW shrubs are more extensively diffused throughout the northern hemisphere, both in the old and new continents, than this trailing evergreen. We are told that it abounds in the northern parts of Europe, in Sweden, Lapland, and Iceland, and extends southerly to the shores of the Mediterranean. In Siberia it is also found, and is represented as abundant on the banks of the Wolga. In North America it grows from Hudson's bay as far south, at least, as the central parts of the United States. It occupies the most barren places, such as gravelly hills and dry, sandy woods, and covers the ground with beds of considerable extent.
The family of plants bearing the name of Arbutus have for their distinctive marks a five-parted calyx, an ovate corolla, pellucid at base; and a superior, five-celled berry. They are closely connected to the Vaccinia or whortleberries, from which they differ principally in the situation of the berry, which in the Arbutus grows above the calyx, and in the Vaccinium below it.—Both these genera, at least the American species, properly belong to the class Decandria and order Monogynia. The Linnrean natural order is Bicornes. Jussieu has them among his Ericae.
The species Uva ursi, Bear's grape or Bearberry is known from the rest by its procumbent stem and entire leaves.—It trails upon the ground, putting out roots from the principal stems, and tending upward with the young shoots only. The cuticle is deciduous, and peels off from the old stems. Leaves scattered, obovate, acute at base, attached by short petioles, coriaceous, evergreen, glabrous, shining above, paler beneath, entire, the margin rounded, but scarcely reflexed, and in the young ones pubescent. Flowers in a short cluster on the ends of the branches. Peduncles reflexed, furnished at base with a short acute bracte underneath, and two minute ones at the sides. Calyx of five roundish segments, of a reddish colour and persistent. Corolla ovate or urceolate, white with a reddish tinge, transparent at base, contracted at the mouth, hairy inside, with five short, reflexed segments. Stamens inserted at the base of the corolla with hairy filaments, and anthers with two horns and two pores in each. Germ round, style straight, longer than the stamens, stigma simple. Nectary a black indented ring, situated below the germ, and remaining till the fruit is ripe. Berries globular, depressed, of a deep red, approaching scarlet, containing an insipid, mealy pulp, and about five seeds, which in the American plant cohere strongly together, so as to appear like the nucleus of a drupe.
The leaves and stems of the Uva ursi are used in Sweden and Russia for the purpose of tanning leather. According to Linnaeus, large quantities are annually collected for this use.
When chewed in the mouth, the leaves have an astringent taste, combined with some degree of bitterness. The result of such chemical trials as I have made with them, shews that they abound in tannin, which is probably their chief active constituent. A solution of gelatin occasions a copious precipitate; sulphate of iron an equally copious one of a black colour. Nitrate of mercury and lime water gave large precipitates from the decoction, the first of a light green, the last of a brownish colour. Of the existence of gallic acid, at least as it exists in galls, I have found no sufficient proof. The decoction does not redden vegetable blues, and the black precipitate with the sulphate of iron soon subsides, leaving the fluid nearly colourless. The quantity of resin, mucous matter and extractive, provided they exist in this plant, must be minute; since the decoction was not rendered turbid by the addition of alcohol or ether, nor the tincture by the addition of water, although after standing twenty four hours, some slight flocculi appeared. Muriate of tin produced no precipitation from the decoction, though it gave one from the tincture. Acetite of lead and nitrate of silver gave large precipitates. Water distilled from this plant, suffered no change with sulphate of iron, or muriate of tin.
Professor Murray of Gottingen, finding a greater amount of soluble matter taken up by water than by alcohol, considers the former as the best menstruum for this article. A similar inference from the American plant was made by Dr. John S. Mitchell in an inaugural dissertation, published at Philadelphia in 1803. For medical uses, Murray prefers the decoction to the infusion.
The Uva ursi was probably known to the ancients, as it grows in all the southern parts of Europe. Clusius thinks it was the αρκτον σταφυλη of Galen, celebrated by him as a remedy in hemoptysis, and described as follows. "Uva ursi in Ponto nascitur, planta humilis et fruticosa, folio Memaecyli, fructum ferens rubrum, rotund um, gustu austerum." But it is well known that the brief and imperfect descriptions of the ancients were productive of little else than uncertainty in Botany.
In modern times the Uva ursi was brought into notice about the middle of the eighteenth century by De Haen, as an efficient remedy in nephritic and even in calculous cases. It had been previously in use for these complaints in Spain, at Naples and Montpellier, and as a general astringent, at a still earlier period. Its reputation was still further augmented by subsequent dissertations, published upon its properties, and different sets of experiments were instituted to ascertain if it were not actually capable of dissolving the stone of the bladder. The results most in favour of its solvent power were those of Girardi, who diminished the weight and consistency of urinary calculi, by digesting them in a preparation of this plant. It appeal's however that the preparation, which he employed, was an acid liquor, obtained by a destructive distillation of the leaves, and probably not superior to other weak acids in its solvent powers. On the other hand, Professor Murray found what might reasonably be expected, that these calculi were not materially affected by long digestion in a decoction of this plant at various temperatures.
The attention of many medical writers has been called to the properties of this medicine, and their reports as to its success are extremely various. Among its greatest friends, are De Haen, Professor Murray, and Dr. Ferriar; while of those whose opinion is more unfavourable, are Sauvages, Haller, Donald, Munro and Fothergill. Dr. Cullen adopts the opinion of De Heucher, that the symptoms of calculus generally are susceptible of relief from astringents, and believes that on this principle the Uva ursi is capable of mitigating complaints arising from that source. [In the preface to the third volume of Medical Observations and Inquiries, published at London, it is stated in very general terms, that the Uva ursi had been prescribed unsuccessfully by many of the members of the Society of Physicians in London. Dr. Woodville, in his Medical Botany, has unfortunately misquoted this passage, by reading "successfully" instead of "unsuccessfully."]
In this country the Uva ursi has acquired the good opinion of practitioners of medicine in repeated instances. Professor Wistar of Philadelphia, as cited by Dr. Mitchell, has in several cases found symptoms like those of urinary calculus completely removed by this medicine. But these could not probably have been cases of real calculus. The late Professor Barton found the plant of much service in his own case of nephritic paroxysms, alternating with gout in the feet.
From the various testimonies which have been given respecting the properties of this article, wo are not warranted in believing it to possess any real lithontriptic power. At the same time it undoubtedly proves a palliative for calculous symptoms in many cases.
I have repeatedly watched its effects in paroxysms of nephritis, brought on by gravelly concretions, and am on the whole inclined to believe in its tendency to allay sensibility in these cases, and to hasten the relief of the symptoms. It ought generally to be preceded by evacuations, and may be advantageously accompanied with opium.—In cases of dysury arising from a variety of causes, I have given the decoction of this plant with very satisfactory success in repeated instances.
The other diseases in which this plant has been recommended are, catarrhus vesicae, leucorrhaea and gonorrhoea. All these complaints it has doubtless cured, but is at the same time inferior to other medicines in use for the same purposes.
Some years ago the Uva ursi was recommended as a remedy in pulmonary consumption by Dr. Bourne of Oxford in England, and by other writers in the periodical works. It was stated to have a very sensible effect in diminishing hectic fever, and abating the frequency of the pulse dependent on it. We do not find however that subsequent experience has justified the expectations formed of it in this disease.
In Dr. Mitchell's experiments on the pulse with this medicine, it appears that the pulsations were sometimes, not always, slightly increased after taking it, but that in every case they soon sunk below the natural standard, and remained so for some time.
Of the powder of the leaves of Uva ursi, from one to two scruples may be given to most patients. Dr. Ferriar's dose in nephritis was from five to ten grains, hut a larger quantity is more effectual, and is readily borne by the stomach. The decoction may be made from half an ounce of the leaves boiled for ten minutes in a pint of water. From a wine glass to a gill of this may be taken every hour.
Arbutus Uva ursi, Linnaeus, Fl. Lapponica, 162, t. i. f. 3.
Oeder, Fl. Dan. t. 88.
Woodville, i. t. 70.
Smith, Fl. Brit.. 443.
Engl. Bot. t.. 714.
Michaux, Fl. i. 249.
Pursh, i. 282.
Uva ursi, J. Bauhin, i. 523.
Clusius, Hispan. 79.
Lobel, Icon. i. 366.
Parkinson, theatr. 1457.
Vitis Idaea, Raius, Hist. 1489.
Murray, Apparatus Med. ii. 64.
Girardi, de Uva ursina, &c.
De Haen, Ratio medendi, ii. 160, &c.
Sauvages, Nosol. iii. 2, 200.
D. Munro, Mat. Med. iii. 288.
Fothergill, Med. Obs. 144.
Alexander, Exp. essays, 151.
Ferriar i. 109.
Heberden 79, 360.
Davie, Med. and Phys. Journal, xv. 347.
Bourne, in ditto, xiv.463.
Mitchell, Inaugural Thesis.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.