Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 25. Bearberry Pt. 1

The forest floor at Vikersund
Bearberry fruit

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi or the common English name of bearberry and norwegian name of melbær. 

The Norwegian name, when translated, literally and aptly describes the melbær,  flour-berry. The berries are edible, dry, tasteless, and floury. But they are considered an important  ‘survival food’ and eaten in sauces by some northern indigenous people with fish, venison, elk and bear.

When describing another plant in this series, Vaccinium vitis-idaea (cowberry/lingonberry), I mentioned that these two plants were the main reason that I wanted to do research and illustrate this series of plants. I wanted to show how they can be distinguished so that both can be used and enjoyed. Getting things wrong – mistaking one fruit for the other – is not dangerous, but it can spoil the effect of a recipe intended for Lingonberries.

Both plants have leathery leaves as well as similar fruit and flowers and although they can grow in the same habitat, the bearberry does better in drier surroundings. In the last blog I showed the back of the Lingonberry leaf which is more oval-shaped, but now I will show you the back of the bearberry leaf which is paddle-shaped.

The photo of the Bearberry leaf was taken in September when the tiny flower buds start to appear – establishing themselves before the snow appears so they can make an early start as soon as it is gone.

To the left is the ‘veiny’ Bearberry leaf and to the right the ‘dotty’ Lingonberry leaf

As you see, the Vaccinium vitis-ideae – lingonberry leaf has small dots on the underside, whereas the bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi leaf has a fine network of veins.

The bearberry is not a member of the Vaccinium Genus, but is part of the Arctostaphylos Genus. However they are both part of the Ericaceae (heather) family. This means that in both species the flowers are typically heather-like, although the bearberry flowers are more urn-shaped and the lingonberry flower is bell-like .

Bearberry urn-shaped flowers to the left and Lingonberry bell-shaped flowers to the right
Longitudinal section of Bearberry flower

The rhizomes of the bearberry lie prostrate down rock walls or across the sandy forest floor, whereas those of the lingonberry sit deeper in the humus.

Both plants have clusters of red fruit, but the Bearberry fruit has a slightly flatter spherical form than that of the Lingonberry. Most importantly the Bearberry has a superior ovary (the gynoecium – [female reproductive part] is above the attachment point of the floral whorls [petals etc]), meaning that the remaining sepals are at the top of the hanging fruit, nearest the pedicel (stalk). The opposite is true of the Lingonberry where the remains of the sepals are at the bottom of the hanging fruit, distal to the pedicel.

This is a photo of the longitudinal section  (LS) of one flower. It clearly shows that it has a superior ovary.

To the left, Bearberry fruit with sepal remnants near pedicel. To the right, Lingonberry fruit with Sepal remnants distal to pedicel.

The second blog about the Bearberry species is scheduled for 11 June 2023. That will be the last blog about the series, although I will show the completed pictures on 15th June.

Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 10. My working practice


Do these three pictures have good compositions? It is not easy for you to judge from these as composition is the area within the mount edge – the image and background.

  • Benton Iris ‘Farewell’ is Watercolour and graphite. The painting is part of the Cedric Morris Florilegium.
  • Dying Rosa rugosa is in Watercolour. It was one of the first paintings I did after returning to Norway. The sprig was sticking up above the snow, so it shrivelled quite fast.
  • Rhododendron impeditum is also watercolour and graphite. This picture is part of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium.

Composition in botanical art is not necessarily very straightforward. As botanical art is ‘art’ it should have a main focal point that draws you into the picture. Once your eye is drawn into the picture, something needs to lead it around within that picture and prevent it from being lead off elsewhere.

On top of this, botanical art must be botanically correct. 

The first digital arrangement of my cloudberry sketches

Combining the art and botany for each picture is hugely difficult particularly when you have different sections telling a story about a plant. Having a series of plants in separate pictures that elaborate the story compounds the problem. 

To try and reduce the problem a little I started to arrange the pictures digitally. I scanned some of my sketches and moved them around within a 31 x 25cm area. It gave me something to think about when deciding what to include in each picture and how many more sketches I would need to get all the information I needed.

Scanning and arranging digitally gave me the opportunity to do something similar with my other species and the ability to compare them against each other. This composition looks nothing like the final one, but I kept rearranging until I was satisfied.

I worked hard to compose my set of pictures so that they looked a series. This can be quite difficult when some are from different families 

  1. Rubus chamaemorus – Rosaceae
  2. Vaccinium oxycoccus Subsp. microcarpum – Ericaceae
  3. Vaccinium uliginosum – Ericaceae
  4. Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum- Ericaceae
  5. Vaccinium myrtillus – Ericaceae
  6. Vaccinium vitis-idaea – Ericaceae
  7. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – Ericaceae

The first word in each species is the Genus name from which the plant is derived. Four are Vacciniums from the same Genus.  Six of the plants are from the Ericaceae (heather) Family and you can see this by the similarity of the flowers. One is from the Rosaceae(rose) family, and the stipules on the leaves (tags at the base of the leaves) is a clear indication of this.

Deciding the enlargement was relatively easy with the plants from the Ericaceae Family where the fruit is comparable. But as everything was larger on the Cloudberry picture, only the scale bars can give the size.

My aim with all the pictures was to let people see and understand the incredible flora and edible fruit available in the mountains. Many look at plants and think them pretty, or know where to pick certain fruits, but not so many study the plant and understand how intriguing it really is. This is an opportunity.

What to include in each composition.

I went through my sketchbook and made sure that I had enough information about each plant to fit on my vellum, mounted on blocks by William Cowley’s. I didn’t want to overcrowd each picture. 

The focus was the plant and its fruit, but one can’t do this without highlighting its flowers. I decided to introduce a picture of the flowers and fruit but restrict dissections to the fruit only. That is until I got to the cloudberry which was going to be the most difficult to integrate into the series. But it isn’t called ‘Mountain Gold’ for nothing.

In the end, all but the cloudberry picture included a branch enlarged and branches actual size to indicate habit. Each had an enlarged flower, plus fruit with both longitudinal (LS) and transverse sections (TS). These are the finished longitudinal sections from each fruit; the largest being the Cloudberry.

In the next blog I will be talking about my transfer process. This comes 23 April 2023.

Only Eight weeks until the RHS Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London;

Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 7. History of the project

Above are the seven plants I chose with trial pieces on vellum offcuts.

The species I chose, with common names also in English and Norwegian

  1. Rubus chamaemorus – cloudberry -multe
  2. Vaccinium oxycoccus subsp. microcarpum – small cranberry – tranebær
  3. Vaccinium uliginosum – bog bilberry – skinntryte
  4. Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum– Mountain crowberry – krekling
  5. Vaccinium myrtillus – bilberry – blåbær
  6. Vaccinium vitis-idaea – cowberry/lingonberry – tyttebær
  7. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi – bearberry – melbær

I have listed the plants in the order according to the type of ground in which they grow – from boggy to sandy:

  • The cloudberry and small cranberry often found intertwined together in the boggy moss of a swampy lake edge. 
  • The bog bilberry is more of a bush and guards the very marshy plants perching on rocks in the marsh. 
  • The Mountain crowberry grows in various areas from rocky outcrops at the edge of a swamp, to tiny examples without much soil, clinging to the rock on mountain tops.
  • The bilberry and cowberry are generally in a similar habitat in damp woods and forests; the cowberry can be the main plant on an old wood ant heap often with bilberry and mountain crowberry.
  • Bearberry grows in sandy areas on the edge of forests or creeping down over smooth rock.

The next stage of this blog goes into my working practice for this series. After which I will talk a little about each of the species and how I painted the final pictures. I will use the above order of plants as I would love others to learn more about them, where to find them and their uses. 

The next blog will be on 13 April 2023.

Foraging plants in the norwegian mountains – 6. History of the project

My best view – Andersnatten at 23:00 in June.

Anyone would think I am trying to sell Norway. I am, it is a fantastically beautiful country. The picture above is in Sigdal, the valley below Haglebu. It is the view we had from the house we built in the late 1970’s. It is from here that I learnt to love Norwegian flora.

In the previous blog I finished off by saying that I still hadn’t seen any sign of one of the two species that got me going with this series of plants. This was the Bearberry (Arcostaphylos uva-ursi). I had already found out that they were not known to grow in the county I now live – along the west side of the Oslo Fjord; In fact locals didn’t seem to know about the plant!

In 2017, that very first summer of sketching, I managed to do some sketches of each of the five species already found. This gave me a feel for the plants but I still needed to do a lot of research into them. I had found that the cloudberry is dioecious – the male and female reproductive organs are separated in two different organisms; each plant is either male or female. My girlfriend from whom we had borrowed the cottage that year, was not aware of this. But, it seems, she was not alone in this as it was a surprise to many Norwegians with a cursory knowledge of the plants around them.

There was plenty of mountain crowberry ( Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum) in the area round the cottage. The crowberry is a family of plants that isn’t quite straight forward in that the species at lower altitudes is dioecious like the Cloudberry, but at this altitude in the mountains is more generally a subspecies called ‘hermaphroditum’. This means it carries both male and female reproductive parts.

Finding plants and choices in 2018

The cottage at Flatvollen, near Haglebu. 906 metres over sea level.

As I realised I was going to need quite a few years to complete my series with only two weeks at a time when we could get to Norway, we decided to rent a cottage at a higher level in the mountains. We looked at an area where I had used to go skiing when younger – Haglebu at the top of the Sigdal valley where it goes over the mountain then steeply down into the next valley. This time we found a cottage at 906 metres over sea level and I could see that I would be near the plants I intended to paint. Although I still hadn’t found the one plant I had been looking for.

In front of the cottage there was quite a boggy plain and I knew that I could get plants such as Cloudberry there. Behind the cottage was steep mountain and I knew most of the other plants would be available to me there. 

We went for a short hike and explored. The marshy area was quite wet, but there were a lot of Cloudberry plants. Unfortunately, it was too late in the season to see any flowers but getting onto my hands and knees I got a real surprise. Weaving in and out of the boggy moss was the tiniest plant, with the smallest flowers and leaves. The plant was so insubstantial but lying on top of the moss were the remains of some red berries. This was Vaccinium oxycoccus Subsp. microcarpum (small Cranberry). The Cranberry bought in our shops is Vaccinium macrocarpum – large cranberry, and of course cultivated in large amounts in the US. 

I had just found my 6th plant, but still not the bearberry.

Below you see the small cranberry on top of the moss with sprigs of bog bilberry and mountain crowberry and a little Betula nana (Dwarf birch), often found as the last tree (no more than a low shrub) on the tree line.

I had to remind myself that the reason for getting interested in this series of plants was because the bearberry often got mixed up with the lingonberry (cowberry), and this often happened at lower elevations. I needed to continue my hunt for the species.

We went hunting and eventually I found quite a few plants in a dry sandy forest area in the next valley. This was Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (bearberry). I now had my seven species, although one of them was not in the immediate area where I was collecting my samples. That is, until I found some very near the cottage, growing down a rock face.

Finding the Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (bearberry)

More on the 9 April 2023

Foraging plants in the Norwegian Mountains – 1. History of the project.

I am originally English but have lived many years in Norway with a 24-year gap in the UK from 1996 to 2020. I lived in the valley of Sigdal for several years, just below Haglebu so returning to the area for this project was a joy for me.

Following my application to exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Botanical Art and Photography Show this year (2023), I received confirmation that I will be one of the exhibitors and allowed to show six pictures in a series of my own choice.

Picking Lingonberries

The topic I chose is the one mentioned above, Foraging plants in the Norwegian Mountains. This series of blogs is about my whole process from choice of plants to painting the final pictures. I intend to post the blogs twice a week right up to the 2023 exhibition in June.

Typically, many Norwegians forage for fruit during the summer and autumn periods of the year. This is understandable when you think that in many parts of Norway the upper metre or more of the ground is frozen solid and covered with snow for up to 6 months of the year. From late May until late September the Norwegian flora has a very fast and compact growth and development. If you come to Norway during the late spring or summer, everything seems very lush with lots of spring flowers everywhere.

If you travel up into the mountains, the flora is different but still very lush – as you see in the pictures above. 

Spring seems to start off with the birch (Betula ) and we love to see the ‘mouse ears’ showing in May. The Norwegian national day is 17th May and being able to decorate everywhere with ‘mouse ears’ really gives the feeling that warmth and growth is at last on the way.

One of the reasons I chose foraging in the mountains as a topic was because I always knew that there were differences in the fruit we found, but it wasn’t until I started painting botanically that I understood how to note these differences and the importance of doing so accurately. 

When I first arrived in Norway in the early seventies, I quickly learnt which fruit was good and very roughly the type of area in which I would find it. I then learnt how to use the various fruits for jam, juices and puddings, giving the family a taste of summer over the winter months.

Now I have the freezer full of bilberries, cloudberries, cowberries (or lingonberries), wild cherries as well as the usual fruit from the garden such as red, white and black currents and plums.

A red Bearberry
Red lingonberries

When foraging, there were two fruits that were easy to confuse, but I learnt to distinguish between them, although not via botanical knowledge. I have since discovered that both are safe to eat, but not equally pleasant. They have  completely different uses which, I will come back to in a future blog when describing them.

Both fruit are red and there is a similarity to the leaves, making it a little complicated when picking them – unless you know what to look for. The one to the right has many uses in jam and juice, whereas the one to the left is a stone fruit of which mostly the leaves are used.

What made me choose these plants to study?

In 2014 whilst still living in the UK, I came to Norway to run and teach at a botanical art workshop in Åsgårdstrand, a popular sailing village near where I now live. Edvard Munch lived in Åsgårdstrand when he painted The Scream. 

I will continue this blog on Thursday 23 March.