Flowering wintergreen. Photo: Matthew Beziat.
Bright red berries remain on the shrub all winter long, providing nourishment for many species of bird. Photo: HR, Flickr.
Wintergreen berry peeking through the snow. Photo: Dennis Wilkinson.
By Alyssa Abaloz
This week’s native plant is American Wintergreen, or Gaultheria procumbens.
A woody, evergreen groundcover in the blueberry family, wintergreen is another stand-out plant in the often barren winter landscapes of North America.
Native to the understory of deciduous, hardwood forests, this shrub prefers shade to semi-shade. Moist, acidic, humus-rich soils are best, but once established it can tolerate considerable drought and heat. Hardy in zones 3 – 8, wintergreen is most commonly seen in the Eastern US and Canada. It’s found in nearly every county in Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Herbarium.
Wintergreen is a groundcover, often found in the understory of hardwood forests. Photo: Robert Benner.
Two wintergreen flowers in summertime. Photo: Jason Hollinger
Leathery, oblong leaves are present on the wintergreen year-round. Its forest-green foliage fades into a deep purple in the fall, but it does not lose its leaves in the winter, hence its evergreen title. White, bell-shaped flowers form in early summer, giving way to edible bright-red berries that persist throughout the winter, providing an excellent source of food for wildlife.
If you happen to rub the wintergreen’s leaves between your fingers, a pleasant, minty aroma will emerge. Fresh wintergreen leaves can be steeped in teas or distilled into oil of wintergreen for a variety of flavoring uses.
Also known as the Eastern teaberry, the wintergreen was commonly used in medicinal remedies. Oil of wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, a close relative of aspirin, establishing the wintergreen as a natural anti-inflammatory and a bold source of flavor.
American wintergreen illustration. Photo: rawpixel.com