Edible Wild Plants: American Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry (Gaultheria Procumbens)

Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry (Gaultheria Procumbens)The Wintergreen (Gaultheria Procumbens) plant was the original source for the favored wintergreen oil. It is also known as Checkerberry and Tea Berry. It was once extracted from the plant to use in candies and as a spice. With the risk of over-harvest of this slow growing plant a second source was found. This new source of wintergreen extract was the Black Birch. It is now produced synthetically. If you enjoy the wintergreen flavor an excellent tea can be made from the leaves and/or berries of this plant. They can be harvested at any time during the year, as this is an evergreen plant. During the winter season you may simply need to brush away the snow to find the plant. Be sparing when you harvest the leaves from this plant, making sure to only take one of two leaves from each stem. This will ensure that there will still be some for the next time.

The leaves and berries can be eaten as a trail nibble. They are both very flavorful, however the leaves can irritate the stomach if swallowed. The volatile oil of wintergreen is very toxic, so one should never take the volatile oil internally. It is said that a mere 6 milliliters of wintergreen oil can kill an adult human. The active ingredient in the oil is methyl salicylate, which is a compound similar to aspirin. In fact the oil of wintergreen was used in some of the first commercially prepared aspirin tablets. Due to this property, the wintergreen plant was used by many civilizations in much the same way as we do aspirin today. Most often the chemical would be derived in a tea, which would soothe sore muscles, calm a headache, and relieve general pain. For a more potent supply the tea would be left steeping for several days until it started to ferment. This fermented liquid was the preferred method for use as a medicine.

Wintergreen Leaves with Berries

Cooking the leaves or berries of the wintergreen plant will fill the house with the wonderful aroma, but the flavor of the berries and leaves will have diminished. When the leaves or berries are heated the volatile oils are vaporized into the air. If you want to use the berries for their flavor it is best to use them fresh. Pureeing them will bring out more flavor to the food.

Wintergreen Crawling on GroundThis creeping, rhizomatous shrublet grows to 6 inches, with scalloped or bristly toothed, glossy, dark green leaves. Foliage has a strong wintergreen scent when crushed. Urn-shaped white or pale pink flowers appear in summer and mature to aromatic scarlet fruit that often persists into the following spring.

The berries and young,tender leaves of the Wintergreen (Checkerberry) are familiar to most country children on account of their pleasant aromatic flavor. The berries, maturing in late summer, last over winter and in early spring, after the melting of snow, become enlarged and much less dry than in the autumn.

The young leaves in the spring while still red are tender and highly flavored with oil of wintergreen (checkerberry), but in the mid-summer become tough and less palatable.

Woodmen esteem the mature leaves as a substitute for tea. In the eighteenth century the plant was highly reputed as a tea-substitute; and we are told that the French-Canadian court-physician, Dr. Hugues Gaultier “decouvrit le the du Canada… qu’il designa comme un breuvage excellent.” (Translated to: Canada discovered the tea … designated as a great beverage)

On account of Gaultier’s enthusiasm over the great possibilities of this tea, his friend, Pehr Kalm, the famous Swedish explorer, who visited him in 1748, proposed that the plant be named Gaultheria.

It should be noted that “oil of checkerberry” or “oil of wintergreen”, used so much as a flavoring and in medicine, is derived (when not made synthetically) by distillation from the twigs of Black Birch.

Edible

  • Fruit
  • Leaves

Uses

Fruit – raw or cooked. Pleasant but insipid. The fruit is not at all insipid, it has a very strong spicy taste of germolene, just like being in a hospital waiting room.

Best after a frost, the fruit hangs onto the plant until spring if it is not eaten by birds etc. The fruits can also be used in pies, or made into jams etc.

The fruit is up to 15mm in diameter.

Young leaves – raw. A pleasant wayside nibble if used when very young. Dry and powdery according to our taste buds. A very agreeable tea is made from the fresh leaves.

A stronger tea can be made by first fermenting the bright red leaves.

‘Oil of wintergreen’ can be distilled from this plant. It is used to flavor beer, sweets, chewing gum etc.

Medicinal Uses

Checkerberry leaves were widely used by the native North American Indians in the treatment of aches and pains and to help breathing whilst hunting or carrying heavy loads.

An essential oil (known as ‘oil of wintergreen’) obtained from the leaves contains methyl salicylate, which is closely related to aspirin and is an effective anti-inflammatory. This species was at one time a major source of methyl salicylate, though this is now mainly synthesized.

The leaves, and the oil, are analgesic, anti-inflammatory, aromatic, astringent, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, stimulant and tonic. An infusion of the leaves is used to relieve flatulence and colic.

The plant, especially in the form of the essential oil, is most useful when applied externally in the treatment of acute cases of rheumatism, sciatica, myalgia, sprains, neuralgia and catarrh. The oil is sometimes used in the treatment of cellulitis, a bacterial infection that causes the skin to become inflamed.

Some caution is advised, especially if the oil is used internally, since essential oil is toxic in excess, causing liver and kidney damage. It should not be prescribed for patients who are hypersensitive to salicylates (aspirin). The leaves can be gathered at any time from spring to early autumn, they are dried for use in infusions or distilled to produce the oil.

Other Uses

An essential oil is obtained from the leaves by steam distillation. In order to obtain the oil, the leaves need to be steeped for 12 – 24 hours in water.

The essential oil is used as a food flavoring, medicinally (the original source of Wintergreen oil used as a liniment for aching muscles) and in perfumery and toothpastes.

In large doses it can be toxic. A good ground-cover plant for shady positions though it requires weeding for the first year or so. Forming a dense tuft-like carpet, it roots as it spreads and should be spaced about 45cm apart each way.

Where Does American Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry (Gaultheria Procumbens) Grow?

Where Does Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry Grow?

How To Identify American Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry (Gaultheria Procumbens)

Wintergreen Leaves
Leaf

Alternate, simple, evergreen, oval to elliptical, 1 to 2 inches long, minutely serrated, thickened with a wintergreen odor when crushed, leaves appear whorled since they cluster at tips of plant; dark shiny green above, much paler below often with black dots.

Wintergreen Flowers
Flower

Monoecious; small (1/4 inch), white, urn-shaped, hanging from short stems from leaf axils, appearing in mid to late summer.

Wintergreen Fruit
Fruit

Red, round, 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter, hanging beneath the leaves, mild wintergreen taste, ripen in late summer and persist into winter.

Wintergreen Twig
Twig

Slender, green turning brown with age.

Wintergreen Bark
Bark

Light brown.

Making Wintergreen Tea

1 Comment

One Response to “Edible Wild Plants: American Wintergreen, Checkerberry, Tea Berry (Gaultheria Procumbens)”

  1. Paul says:

    I have been told by my father, whilst out collecting/felling firewood during winter that while wintergreen berries are good to eat, they only ever one-to two or so to a stem and that there is a lookalike plant that has berries that grow in bunches of 5-or-more & is dangerous/toxic to eat.
    Is this true? if so, what’s the plants name?

    About this page, a section on toxicity & poisonous lookalikes would be appreciated.

    If it helps, I live in northern Wisconsin.

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