Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a medicinal plant traditionally employed for the treatment of urinary tract infections due to high contents of arbutin (hydroquinone β-D-glucoside), which is now mainly used as a natural skin-whitening agent in cosmetics. Bearberry has also been proposed as a natural antioxidant additive due to the high contents of phenolic compounds in leaves. We studied the variation on phenolic compounds in 42 wild populations of bearberry, aiming to elucidate if intrinsic biological, climatic, and/or geographic factors affect phenolic contents across its natural distribution in the Iberian Peninsula. Bearberry leaves were collected during autumn over a three-year period (2014–2016) in populations across a latitude and altitude gradient. Methanolic extracts showed a wide range of variation in total phenols content, and different phenolic profiles regarding arbutin (levels of this major constituent varied from 87 to 232 mg/g dr wt), but also catechin and myricetin contents, which were affected by geographic and climatic factors. Moderate levels of variation on genome size—assessed by flow cytometry—and on two plastid DNA regions were also detected among populations. Genetic and cytogenetic differentiation of populations was weakly but significantly associated to phytochemical diversity. Elite bearberry genotypes with higher antioxidant capacity were subsequently identified.
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