Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month - Wintergreen - December 1998
WINTERGREEN (Gaultheria procumbens)
Wintergreen is also known as teaberry, checkerberry, mountain tea and partridge-berry, but is not to be confused with some of the plants in the Pyrolaceae family, also known as the Wintergreen family.
Wintergreen is a slow growing, shade-loving shrubby groundcover that grows to only six inches high. It likes acidic soil and grows in the woods of the U.S. and Canada (zones 4-7). It grows by means of underground stems that periodically shoot up erect stems. Wintergreen is a member of the heath family and is an evergreen. The two-inch shiny green leathery or waxy leaves turn reddish purple in the winter. It flowers in July and August, producing urn- or egg-shaped white to pinkish flowers. These in turn produce red berries, which mature in the fall and last all winter but are often hidden beneath the leaves. Both the leaves and the berries contain oil of wintergreen, containing methyl salicylate, which is related to aspirin. This oil, now made synthetically, was used to flavor candy, gum, toothpaste, medicines and even a birch beer. The wintergreen scent is released when the leaf is torn.
Wintergreen was used medicinally by a number of North American Indian tribes for kidney problems, paralysis, invigorating the stomach, rheumatism, arthritis, fevers, lumbago, asthma, muscle aches, swelling, wounds, rashes, toothaches, headaches, sore throats, and as a tonic. It was made into a tea for some of the above ailments and made into a poultice for others, which allowed it to be absorbed by the skin. It was adopted as well by American colonists for medicinal use. Wintergreen oil is an astringent, a diuretic and a stimulant.
A tea can be made from the leaves. Combine equal amounts of boiling water and fresh leaves and let it sit for a day or two for a good strong tea. Reheat the tea when you are ready to drink it. For a weaker tea, steep fresh leaves in a pot of hot water. The berries are edible and were eaten by native Americans, raw and cooked. They were dried as well. Berries are also eaten by deer, partridge, grouse and mice. Deer also eat the leaves.
CAUTION: though safe in small amounts for most people, wintergreen oil is poisonous in large doses and has caused fatalities in children who drank it. Also the oil can burn when applied to the skin. Though it can be grown from seed, it is easier to start from cuttings, layering, divisions or suckers. Seed takes 3 to 100 days to germinate and requires light to germinate (i.e., sow seed on the soil surface; do not cover seed). Cold treatment may benefit the seed. Prairie Gardens in Champaign carried the plant last summer.
Thanks to Carolyn Vance for this report and to her sources: Ortho's Guide to Herbs by Monica Brandies, A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes, Guide to Indian Herbs by Raymond Stark, and Eyewitness Handbooks' HERBS by Lesley Bremness.
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