What’s that bit of green poking through the fallen leaves and forest duff? You’ll have to crouch down to get a good look at Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). A mere 3-5″ tall, this teensy shrublet from the Ericaceae family (blueberry, azalea) has little oval leathery leaves, often mottled with purple or brown. A few urn-shaped pink to white flowers appear in early summer are followed by bright red berries. The berries persist well into the winter and help to distinguish it from similar-looking seedlings of mountain laurel or deerberry. When in doubt (or to clear your sinuses), break a leaf in half and inhale deeply. Yes, this humble little plant is the source of methyl salicylate – wintergreen oil – one of the active (though now synthetic) ingredients in IcyHot, Ben Gay, and other lifesaving remedies. Though non-scented versions are now available, that distinctive aroma alerts those nearby that you are an ATHLETE. Or perhaps just getting older*. Another common name is “teaberry” – hence the name of Clark’s chewing gum, flavored by the same compound.
Wintergreen is native throughout the Appalachians from north to south (USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8). Despite the pungent scent, when the acorn supply is low, deer will turn to wintergreen as forage. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and others snack on the little red wintergreen berries, also redolent with the oil, and presumably have the freshest breath in the animal kingdom. In the garden, wintergreen does best in the shade of deciduous trees in acidic soil rich with leaf mold. Add wintergreen to the long list of N. American natives that have become wildly popular overseas but are under-appreciated here — it’s one of the top-selling nursery plants in Europe. Mix it up with Hellebores and hardy cyclamen to add some wildlife-friendly winter interest in the woodland perennial garden.
*Speaking of older, honk if you remember the “Teaberry Shuffle.”