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 (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
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.
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.
Propagation: by seeds, cuttings, divisions.
Note: Gaultheria honors Jean-Francois Gaulthier – physician and botanist in the French colony of Quebec in mid-17th.