Gaultheria procumbens Herb – Culinary / Medicinal Zones 3 to 7
Soil pH 4.5 to 5.5 Partial Sun Perennial
Wintergreen is an unusual berry that is generally acquired via foraging as opposed to cultivating. It can however be grown successfully in the Northeastern USA and South Eastern Canada as well as other regions to which it is not indigenous but that have suitable climates. It needs a mild summer and cold winter as well as the intermediate seasons.
Wintergreen tastes just like wintergreen – go figure. The original model upon which wintergreen gum and similar confections are based was the wintergreen aka teaberry, checkerberry and sometimes box berry. It’s most common name however is American Wintergreen.
Both the berries and leaves are edible and offer a unique minty wintergreen flavor. The leaves although they can be eaten as is will frequently lead to a belly ache and are best used for teas and tinctures. The berries are at their finest following a light frost, and will generally cling to the plant right through the winter and into spring. In addition to their use as a tea/tincture thy are also be used in preserves such as jelly and pies, or as a secondary flavoring agent in some recipes.
The seeds require cold stratification to germinate. In mid winter, seeds can tucked between moist paper towels, so they will not dry out. The moist towels harboring the seeds is then placed in a plastic bag and refrigerated until ready to plant out in early spring.
They will sometimes begin to germinate within the towel, you should see small root tips emerging from the seed. Carefully remove the seeds before planting in either peat pots or similar containers, or if the season is opportune – directly into the ground. Keep the seedlings/ seeds persistently moist, not washed out just moist. Ditto for the plants as they grow. Do not allow soil to dry out.
They grow well in basically the same soil that harbors Blueberries or rhododendrons . They favor acidic soils with a low pH , preferably between 4.5 and 5.5 [pH range]. If pH is too high iron chlorosis often results – when soil pH is too low the possibility of manganese toxicity arises.
Wintergreen favors a healthy dose of sunshine, not full sun, just partial, they are highly adaptable to shaded areas and will grow just fine under a rhododendron or mixed in with blueberries which have similar soil requirements. They are a sprawling plant that grows low to the ground reaching less than a foot off the surface. Being a low growing plant Wintergreen is sometimes used as a ground cover.
The leaves are dark green with a strong wintergreen aroma when crushed, they turn red or bronze come fall. The flowers are pale pink to white, not overly attractive nor are they ugly. The berries have a taste that matches the aroma with a tad more minty sweetness than you would sometimes anticipate.
The volatile oil of wintergreen is highly toxic in large doses, which is probably why the leaves produce a belly ache when ingested. A single drop of concentrated wintergreen oil can flavor a gallon or more of wintergreen tea. The aspirin like active compound found in wintergreen is methyl salicylate in mild doses it has multiple medicinal properties as per herbalists. Like aspirin it soothes throbbing head aches and eases sore muscles. For more info on the medicinal properties of wintergreen see – Wintergreen Oil: More Than Just a Pain Reliever mercola.com