3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: WINTERGREEN

on February 10, 2015

(Gaultheria procumbens)


Tiny Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) shrub is easy to overlook in the winter landscape.

Probably one of the tiniest shrubs, we generally think of Wintergreen as an evergreen ground cover. Although you can find this sweetly fragrant plant year round, I associate it with the coldest months of the year and winter woodland walks. I have delighted in leading each of our four children to discovering its tasty wonders at a time when the Earth seems to be sleeping and our taste buds have become dulled by stews and starchy meals.

If you have tasted Teaberry gum then you are familiar with the flavor of Wintergreen. Both the leaves and berries are edible and have this delicious flavor. Each plant produces two to five 1-2 inch long leaves that are thick, shiny, oval, and very slightly toothed. It spreads by underground runners so you will often find them in little lines or clusters of individual miniature shrubs. It’s fun to think of them as towering fairy trees if you like to engage in childlike imaginings. In July and August in our area tiny white, bell-shaped Wintergreen flowers can be found dangling beneath the leaves. Later the red berries often persist until the next flowering season. Wintergreen prefers acidic soils so I generally look for them around Pine trees in our woods and I am almost always rewarded. It likes to grow in the same places that wild Blueberries or Huckleberries like to grow.

Wintergreen 2

Nice little village of Wintergreen lining up.

Wintergreen can be eaten (leaves and berries) as is, which is my favorite way, or brewed into a sweet and delicious tea. Since it contains methyl salicylate, a compound similar in structure to the active ingredient in aspirin it would be contraindicated for those with aspirin allergies. I have found Wintergreen tea to be a wonderful headache tea for my own children along with some Chamomile flowers. I would like to point out that Wintergreen essential oil comes with many warnings about toxicity. This highlights the fact that the form in which an herb is used matters. Steam-distilled essential oils are highly concentrated products and should not be used interchangeably with fresh or dried herbs. I have read that a single drop of essential oil is equivalent to 28 cups of brewed tea from that same plant, which explains why what seems like a “small” dose like 1/4 tsp. can really be a huge one. Additionally, essential oils are structurally different from whole plants. Both are useful, each in its own appropriate application. Research, positively identify, and educate yourself before ingesting anything.

When gathering take only one or two leaves from each plant so they can continue to photosynthesize and flourish. Be conscious of the population of the Wintergreen tribe, taking from only 1 in every 5 or more plants. Sustainable and respectful wild-crafting practices will assure there is plenty of Wintergreen for generations to come. Sometimes, especially in winter, leaves become tinged a reddish color. Both red and green leaves are equally tasty.

Given the common name Teaberry, this plant was obviously used historically for tea. Author Ellen Zachos, in her book BACKYARD FORAGING: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, says she also likes to use it to flavor ice creams and liquors. She has several recipes but I think I may try this one: Fill a small jar with leaves, cover with good quality rum and allow to macerate for several weeks to produce a delicious winter aperitif.

According to Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, Wintergreen tea is traditionally used to treat colds, headaches, stomach aches, and fevers. Externally it is used as a wash for rheumatism, sore muscles, and lumbago. It is analgesic(pain relieving), carminative (flatulence relieving), anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation), and antiseptic (prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms).

Now that is a cup of tea worth brewing and a leaf worth chewing!

Wintergreen 3

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