Wintergreen is the common name for an evergreen shrub belonging to the genus Gaultheria and heath family Ericaceae. Gaultheria procumbens is native to eastern North America and grows wild in sandy, wooded areas or shady clearings. This shrub grows 4-6 in (10-15 cm) high with creeping stems. Stalks grow from the stems and have elliptical, shiny green leaves and leathery leaves. During mid-summer, white, drooping, bell-shaped flowers grow; in the fall, wintergreen has bright red edible berries. The berries, called deerberries or checkerberries, contain several seeds and remain on the plants into the winter season.
Some plants of the genus Chimaphila, related to Gaultheria, are also called wintergreens. One plant of interest is pipsissewa (C. umbelata), which comes from the Cree word pipisisikweu, meaning "[the juice] breaks it into small pieces." It has been speculated that the Cree used this type of wintergreen as a remedy for kidney stones.
Wintergreen is also called teaberry or checkerberry. The whole plant, particularly the leaves, is a source of the volatile oil that has made wintergreen's spicy, sweet taste very popular. Wintergreen oil is used to flavor gum, candy, toothpaste, mouthwash, and birch beer (a carbonated soft drink). The oil is also used in topical antiseptics and liniments. The active element of wintergreen is methyl salicylate, which is a derivative of salicylic acid (an important ingredient of aspirin). American Indians of the eastern woodlands made poultices from wintergreen leaves as a remedy for muscle and joint aches, inflammations, and toothaches. The Indians also taught early settlers how to make wintergreen tea for sore throats, nausea, and fevers.
During the early colonization days of North America, large amounts of wintergreen were gathered, dried, and transported to distilleries where the oil was extracted from the leaves. Today chemical factories make synthetic oil of wintergreen in the form of methyl salicylate. The leaves of natural wintergreen can be chewed; at first they will taste sweet, but the taste turns bitter very quickly. One should be careful when using pure wintergreen oil, as it can be irritating to the skin and poisonous if ingested internally. Many drugstores no longer sell pure wintergreen oil, as it is illegal to sell it in many local jurisdictions.
Christine Miner Minderovic