Common Name: Wintergreen|
Scientific Name: Gaultheria procumbens
Family Name: Heath (Ericaceae)
Other Common Names: Winterberry, Checkerberry, Tea Leaf, Deerberry
Flower Color: White
Habitat: Poor Acidic Soils in Woods and Clearings
General Bloom Dates: June - August
Look for the flower under the evergreen leaves. The small (1/4 inch) flower has 5 petals that form a "bell" shape. The oval shaped leaves are dark green in color and appear to be hard and brittle. The leaves have an obscure tooth pattern and when broken there is an unmistakable wintergreen aroma and taste. The pollinated flower turns into a bright red berry, also bearing the wintergreen flavor. This plant will reach heights of 2 - 6 inches and will not compete well in a heavy understory.
The wintergreen plant was the original source for the favored wintergreen oil. It was once extracted from the plant to use in candies and as a spice. With the risk of over-harvest of this slow growing plant a second source was found. This new source of wintergreen extract was the Black Birch. It is now produced synthetically. If you enjoy the wintergreen flavor an excellent tea can be made from the leaves and/or berries of this plant. They can be harvested at any time during the year, as this is an evergreen plant. During the winter season you may simply need to brush away the snow to find the plant. Be sparing when you harvest the leaves from this plant, making sure to only take one of two leaves from each stem. This will ensure that there will still be some for the next time.
The leaves and berries can be eaten as a trail nibble. They are both very flavorful, however the leaves can irritate the stomach if swallowed. The volatile oil of wintergreen is very toxic, so one should never take the volatile oil internally. It is said that a mere 6 milliliters of wintergreen oil can kill an adult human. The active ingredient in the oil is methyl salicylate, which is a compound similar to aspirin. In fact the oil of wintergreen was used in some of the first commercially prepared aspirin tablets. Due to this property, the wintergreen plant was used by many civilizations in much the same way as we do aspirin today. Most often the chemical would be derived in a tea, which would soothe sore muscles, calm a headache, and relieve general pain. For a more potent supply the tea would be left steeping for several days until it started to ferment. This fermented liquid was the preferred method for use as a medicine.
Cooking the leaves or berries of the wintergreen plant will fill the house with the wonderful aroma, but the flavor of the berries and leaves will have diminished. When the leaves or berries are heated the volatile oils are vaporized into the air. If you want to use the berries for their flavor it is best to use them fresh. Pureeing them will bring out more flavor to the food.