The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications




Other Names


Atamaoya, heiliger tabak, holy tobacco, Indianertabak, Indian tobacco, killikinnick, kinikinnik, kinnecanick, kinnickinnick, k’nickk’neck, larb, native blend, ninnegahe, Uakan tobacco


Kinnikinnick is an Algonquian word that means “the mixed” or “something that is mixed.” It is used to refer to various ingredients and smoking blends that are ritually smoked by Native Americans, for example, in the proverbial peace pipe. The ingredients of such smoking blends are often called larb, a corruption of the French word l’herbe (Johnston 1970, 317*).

Smoking was and continues to be a part of all Native American ceremonies, including shamanic healings, powwows, meetings of the tribal councils, ratification of treaties, and vision quests. The Kiowa, for example, smoke sumac leaves (Rhus glabra L.) before they ingest peyote (Lophophora williamsii) to purify themselves for the ceremony (Kindscher 1992, 185*).

Early reports about the smoking habits of North American Indians often attributed kinnikinnick with a variety of psychoactive effects. One document described the effects as “narcotic,” while another claimed that it was “like opium” or that it made one drunk (Ott 1993*).

The main ingredient of the various mixtures is uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi [L.] Sprengel [syn. Arbutus uva-ursi L., Arctostaphylos media Greene, A. officinalis Wimm., A. procumbens Patzke, Mairania uva-ursi Desv., Uva-ursi buxifolia S.F. Gray, Uva-ursi procumbens Moench]), a member of the Ericaceae (Heath) Family. In North America, uva-ursi is also known by the names kasinka-sixie,kaya’nlkwicásklêwatkinnikinnik, or smoking weed. This prostrate-growing plant can easily be confused (and adulterated) with bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum L.) and winter- green (Gaultheria procumbens L.) (Hoffmann-Bohm and Simon 1992, 331). Its leaves are added as an antiseptic ingredient to many diuretic teas (Paper et al. 1993). The Flathead Indians smoked uva-ursi in pipes and blew the smoke they inhaled into the ears of those suffering from earaches because of its numbing effects (Hart 1979, 281*). Prior to the introduction of tobacco, uva-ursi was smoked throughout the American Northwest. Later, the leaves were often mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). The Chehali say that uva-ursi smoke causes a “drunken feeling” when inhaled. A S’Klallam man even warned against mixing yew needles (Taxus brevifolia Nutt.) and uva-ursi because the blend would have “too strong of an effect” (Gunther 1988, 44*).





Many Native American Indians know bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) by the name kinnikinnick and use it as a basic ingredient in their ritual smoking mixtures. (Photographed in Colorado)



A kinnikinnick blend that is smoked in a peace pipe at ritual events. (Photograph: Karl-Christian Lyncker)


Dried uva-ursi leaves contain 5 to 12%, sometimes even as much as 15%, arbutin and occasionally up to 2.5% methylarbutin (Hoffmann-Bohm and Simon 1992, 331). The leaves have antibacterial properties. High doses can induce labor (Hoffmann-Bohm and Simon 1992, 335). The leaves of the American plant contain the flavones myricetin and quercetin (cf. Psidium guajavaVaccinium uliginosum) as well as arbutin, hydrochinone, and gallic acid (Veit et al. 1992). A closely related Mexican species, Arctostaphylos arguta (Zucc.) DC., is known in the local vernacular as madroño borracho (“drunken strawberry tree”), which may indicate a possible psychoactive activity (Martínez 1994, 205*).

One very popular admixture is the inner bark of Cornus stolonifera Michx., which is also often smoked by itself and is also known by the name kinnikinnik (Johnston 1970, 317*).

To aromatize the mixture, musk glands as well as various animal fats (such as buffalo fat) were sometimes used (Kindscher 1992, 226*).

Some kinnikinnick ingredients are clearly psychoactive, including the roots of Veratrum viride, the leaves and seeds of the thorn apple (Datura stramoniumDatura innoxia), the herbage of Lobelia inflata, the various tobacco species (Nicotiana spp.), sassafras bark (Sassafras albidum), and others (Hart 1979, 281*). Many of the ingredients in eastern kinnikinnick mixtures are commonly considered to be poisonous, and some are especially dangerous: Datura stramoniumEuonymus spp. (alkaloids; cf. Bishay et al. 1973), Kalmia latifoliaPrunus serotinaTaxus spp., Veratrum viride (de Wolf 1974). The different mixtures can have very different effects, which are likely due to a wide range of possible synergisms and pyro-chemical modifications.



It is quite possible that the psychoactive effects of some kinnikinnick recipes are produced by a skillful combination of the various ingredients and the resulting synergistic effects, even though the individual ingredients might not themselves be psychoactive. On the other hand, there are also recipes that do contain powerful hallucinogenic ingredients (e.g., Datura stramonium). Unfortunately, information about the relative proportions of ingredients is not always provided.


The smoking blend called sagackhomi consists of equal parts of (Emboden 1986, 162*):





Pre-Columbian pipe heads from North America, used for the ritual smoking of kinnikinnick. (From Hartwich, Die menschlichen Genußmittel, 1911)





“A few years ago, an Indian from the Quileute tribe smoked Arctostaphylos uva-ursi leaves and became so inebriated that he danced barefoot in the fire until his soles were burned to a crisp and his feet were crippled forever. Several years before that, another old Indian became drunk from the inhaled narcotic after smoking the leaves of this plant. He was so drunk that he fell into the fire, burned his hands, burned his nose completely off, and also parts of his lips. He lived like this for many more years.”






(1934, 76)


“With this wakan tobacco, we place You in the pipe, O winged Power of the west. We are about to send our voices to Wakan-Tanka, and we wish You to help us! This day is wakan because a soul is about to be released. All over the universe there will be happiness and rejoicing! O You sacred Power of the place where the sun goes down, it is a great thing we are doing in placing You in the pipe. Give to us for our rites one of the two sacred red and blue days which You control!”







The Plains Indians smoke many species from the genus Rhus.



The American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) is one of the plants traditionally smoked by the forest Indians.



The North American black cherry (Prunus serotina) is an ingredient in traditional smoking blends.



The leaves of the alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina) are smoked by Native Americans.



The silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is known as kinnikinnick in the northeastern region of North America, where it is an important ingredient in smoking blends.



The bark of the dogwood variety Cornus sericea var. sericea is smoked by the forest Indians of North America.



The dried leaves of the North American wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) are an ingredient in kinnikinnick blends.



The leaves of the narrow-leafed laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), which are regarded as toxic, certainly belong among the pharmacologically active smoking herbs.



The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a traditional ingredient in kinnikinnick.




See also the entries for smoking blends.


Bishay, D. W., Z. Kowalewski, and J. D. Phillipson. 1973. Peptide and tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloids from Euonymus europaeusPhytochemistry 12:693–98.


Black Elk. 1989. The sacred pipe. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


de Wolf, Gordon R. 1974. Guide to potentially dangerous plants. Arnoldia 34 (2): 45–91.


Foster, Steven, and James A. Duke. 1990. Eastern/central medicinal plants. A Peterson Field Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.


Hoffmann-Bohm, Kerstin, and Peter Simon. 1992. Arctostaphylos. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:328–38. Berlin: Springer.


McGuire, Joseph D. 1897. Pipes and smoking customs of the American aborigines. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Museum.


Murray, Robert. 1965. A history of the Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota. Pipestone, Minn.: Pipestone Indian Shrine Association.


———. 1983. Pipes on the Plains. Pipestone, Minn.: Pipestone Indian Shrine Association.


Paper, D. H., J. Koehler, and G. Franz. 1993. Bioavailability of drug preparations containing a leaf extract of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (uvae ursi folium). Planta Medica 59 suppl.: A589.


Paper, Jordan. 1988. Offering smoke: The sacred pipe and Native American religion. Moscow: The University of Idaho Press.


Reagan, Albert. 1934. Plants used by the Hoh and Quileute Indians. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Sciences 37.


Rutsch, Edward S. 1973. Smoking technology of the aborigines of the Iroquois area of New York State. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


Schroeter, Willy. 1989. Calumet: Der heilige Rauch—Pfeifen und Pfeifenkulte bei den nordamerikanischen Indianern. Wyk auf Föhr: Verlag für Amerikanistik.


Veit, M., I. Van Rensen, J. Kirch, H. Geiger, and F.-C. Czygan. 1992. HPLC analysis of phenolics and flavonoids in Arctostaphylos uvae-ursiPlanta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A687.


West, George A. 1934. Tobacco, pipes and smoking customs of the American Indians. Bulletin 17:1–994. Milwaukee, Wis.: Milwaukee Public Museum.