Shining – Gaultheria procumbens

Filled out with the enthusiasm brought by a sunny, warm day (first after a long and dreary winter), we had our first hike in the forest. In the shaded areas the snow cover was still knee deep but on the warmed up slopes, underneath bare oak trees, a carpet of glossy, purple leaves was shining in the sun – the wintergreen.

Gaultheria procumbens - fruits in early springGaultheria procumbens (wintergreen, teaberry, mountain tea) – is an adorable low growing evergreen shrub native to northeastern North America usually found in pine and hardwood forests and as a part of the oak-heath forest, favouring acidic soil. It reaches about 10-15 cm high with glossy, leathery and fragrant leaves (when crushed) that will turn purple in the fall, especially in sunny areas. It has white, bell-shaped flowers (typical of fam. Ericaceae) and berry-like red fruits, which persist through the winter.

For the gardens it is an excellent groundcover beneath other acidic-lovers, in part-shade to full shade locations and it has received an AGM from Royal Horticultural Society.

But I don’t know if any of this would matter until you see it shining brightly one early day of spring

Gaultheria procumbens -early spring

Gaultheria procumbens – in early spring after the snowmelt

Besides its ornamental qualities as an evergreen groundcover, it has been used traditionally for making a fine herbal tea and also for the extraction of wintergreen oil (used for flavouring of chewing gum, candies, medicinal). Various tribes of Native Americans used Gaultheria for medicinal purposes too, most commonly for relieving aches and pains and rheumatism. The colonists who first started to use the wintergreen leaves as a substitute for the imported tea during the Revolutionary War, also adopted its medicinal uses.

Gaultheria procumbens flowering (Killarney, Ontario)

Gaultheria procumbens flowering in Killarney, Ontario

Most wintergreen oil is produced synthetically today, but in traditional herbal medicine oil extracted from fresh leaves is preferred. The active ingredient of this oil is methyl salicylate, an aspirin- like compound, which like aspirin has proven anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic and analgesic properties.

Gaultheria procumbens also has wildlife value – the leaves and fruits will be consumed in the winter by various animals such as wild turkey, red fox, northern bobwhite, pheasant, eastern chipmunk….not to mention that the pollinators are indulging in its flowers in the spring.

Bumble bee on Gaultheria procumbens

Propagation: by seeds, cuttings, divisions.

Note: Gaultheria honors Jean-Francois Gaulthier – physician and botanist in the French colony of Quebec in mid-17th.



12 replies
    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Thank you – we can finally say it’s spring here! (but still below zero in the night) Would you like some seeds? – you can spread them in the woodland and leave it to the nature… I don’t know about the bee – should be a ‘native’ one for sure :)

      • ontheedgegardening
        ontheedgegardening says:

        That would be great, thank you! Desmodium are struggling on after their mouse attack, glaucidium are slowly slowly but fine and unfortunately the jacaranda didn’t make it through.

        • diversifolius
          diversifolius says:

          I have to go to the mail-post tomorrow anyway so they’ll be on the way shortly. Don’t worry about Desmodium -I’ll collect in the fall for sure.
          That’s how the Glaucidium is usually, interesting how long it takes to develop the first true leaf (I must do some research on this).

  1. Amy Olmsted
    Amy Olmsted says:

    Did you also know that if you eat the fruit..which is delicious by the way….in the dark it will spark against your teeth!?! I have only heard this and never tried it, but I do love the berries!

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Hi, yes I like the fruits too but never eat them in the dark :) The sparkling might be because of the methyl salicilate, which is fluorescent.
      I read that a while ago they used to do wintergreen flavoured candies which were renowned for sparkling when snapped in two – for the same reason.

  2. Inger
    Inger says:

    Richters sold an “improved’ Gaultheria a while back. I do not know it and do not know if it is improved


    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Hello Inger,
      I never heard of it either. Honestly I don’t know how could it be improved. If it’s about the essential oil the growing conditions can affect the concentration of its active ingredient (methyl salicilate – the higher the better).

  3. mrsdaffodil
    mrsdaffodil says:

    A fine post, with a lot of information and a poetic first paragraph. Glad to hear you have better weather at last. It’s raining here today, but maybe tomorrow we will see some leaves shining in the sun.

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Thank you – maybe it was the effect of the sun :) We are not done with winter yet, even in our small garden there is a bit of snow on the shady side, but I think we left behind the worst of it. I wish you a sunny day tomorrow!

  4. composerinthegarden
    composerinthegarden says:

    Wonderful photos of this plant in the wild. I have often thought of adding it to the native plant areas of my garden – I didn’t realize it had such a handsome winter appearance!

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Thank you – it would be happy in any part-shade to shady area under trees. ‘Wintergreen’ for less-snow years or first
      to shine in the garden after the snowmelt.

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