Riddle me low, riddle me high,
thrice eleven names have I!
Red are my berries, my blossoms white,
Green are my leaves, with flavor bright.
Food for the partridge, food for the deer,
Green undying, though winter be here.
As the old riddle implies, wintergreen has 33 common names which include teaberry, a flavor of popular chewing gum and ice cream, and checkerberry, since some leaves develop a reddish tinge in cold weather producing a checkered effect with the evergreen leaves. Native to shady woods in North America, numerous parts of winterberry have been used by Native Americans and early colonists for tea, as a food flavoring for meat & fish, to reduce toothache and tooth decay, and in brandy as a winter tonic. It is still used by foragers and herbalists for food and medicine, and gardeners to carpet shady landscapes.
A dwarf evergreen shrub and member of the health family, winterberry grows about 3 to 5 inches high under trees and other shrubs. It was named Gaultheria after a Canadian physician and botanist, Jean Franois Gaultier, but procumbens comes from the Latin, “prostrate” or “lying flat”, a good indication of its growing habit. This low groundcover has 4” oval, shiny, dark green leaves with pale undersides at the tips of red, upright stems, which have an aromatic smell and taste. The drooping white or pink-flushed, bell-shaped flowers appear in late spring or early summer and are scented like lily of the valley. Fleshy, bright red berries with a sweetish taste are formed by the enlargement of the calyx in autumn and last through the winter although they are often eaten by a variety of mammals and birds including chipmunks, quail, turkey, deer and wood mice. Even the seeds are a colorful orange-yellow and wedge shaped. Winterberry prefers a light sandy, acidic soil with plenty of organic matter and thrives in filtered shade at the edges of forests although it flowers best in sunny openings with light shade during midday. It dislikes heat and humidity and will not tolerate drought. Seed may be planted in a mix of peat and sand but is slow to germinate. Propagation by cuttings in early summer or root divisions in early spring are the best means to multiply these plants.
The berries and leaves have a hearty mint-like odor and flavor and chewing the leaves or eating the berries refreshes the breath and soothes irritated gums. A delicately flavored tea is made from the leaves called mountain tea which is perfect if you feel run down or chilled in winter. The leaves are also an important flavoring in root beer. The berries, which are high in vitamin C, can be eaten raw in salads and fruit shakes, made into pies combined with other fruits or frozen which improves their flavor then added to pancakes or muffins. The essential oil is used as a popular flavoring for toothpaste as well as for potpourri, perfumes and a variety of bath preparations since it is soothing to sore muscles. Wintergreen oil was originally used by bookbinders to keep leather soft.
Wintergreen spreads horizontally
forming a wonderful patch
for a shady garden of native plants,
a woodland groundcover
or part of an edible landscapes
I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.”