My maternal grandmother; Millie Hanson, could be counted on for many things growing up; her fabulous cooking-pot roast, goulash and chicken rice casserole (it is the Midwest after all!), baking amazing Norwegian cookies, and a stick of gum during church services. Among her favorites was “Teaberry” a brand of gum by the Clark Company, popular in the 1960’s & 70’s. The gum was slightly pink, making you believe it might taste like bubblegum, but once the piece was in your mouth, a surprise, minty! You could count on this treat to be found in her purse. (Chewing gum, quietly, was a great distraction during those really long Baptist sermons!) Little did I know, as a child, this gum derived its minty flavor from a little native shrub, Gaultheria procumbens-Wintergreen.
If you are a lucky individual walking in the forests of eastern North America, you may well have the opportunity to find this very special plant.
A member of the Ericaceae or heath family, Wintergreen forms delicate white bell shaped flowers in summer and in turn will form distinctive red berries.
Glossy oval leaves make this plant a bright spot amongst the ferns and sedges in the dense green forest floor. In fall the leaves turn a beautiful wine red.
Creeping slowly by rhizomes across the forest floor, this little plant grows to a height of 4-6 inches tall. Often Wintergreen is found near fallen and decaying logs where the soil is sandy-loam, fairly moist and slightly acidic (4.5-6.0). Hardy to USDA Zone 3-7, Wintergreen prefers shade to partial sun to shade, (dappled light conditions produce the most berries) .
The Algonquin tribe used Wintergreen leaves as an analgesic for headaches. The active ingredient in Wintergreen oil is methyl salicylate, a compound similar to aspirin. The oil of wintergreen was used in some of the first commercially prepared aspirin.
Wintergreen berries make a tasty jam, and ice cream; and the foliage can be crushed to make a flavorful tea. The berries and foliage serve as food source for the Eastern Chipmunk, deer mice, black bear and deer.
If you have a shady spot in the woods consider Wintergreen as an option. I’m lucky, as my soil tends to be acidic in our woods (a mix of pines and oaks); and is sandy loam where Wintergreen will do quite well. This plant is on my list to add to this spot next spring! If your soil is not quite acidic you can add acidifiers to lower the PH. Some use pine needles as mulch to add a small amount of acid to neutral to slightly alkaline soils.