Gaultheria procumbens--Wintergreen


Above we can see the bell-like flowers blooming in the mid-summer warmth of the Eastbay.

Gaultheria procumbens is also known as Wintergreen, Checkerberry and Teaberry.

Gaultheria is a low-growing (3-7 in.), shrub-like perennial native to Eastern North America where it thrives in shady and moist conditions. It has deep green, waxy leaves, and produces white, bell-like flowers which mature to form bright red berries.

Wintergreen leaves and berries have a distinct, spicy aroma and flavor which anyone who is familiar with root beer would immediately recognize. The leaves have an essential oil rich in Methyl salicylate--a compound noted for its ability to relieve muscle and joint pain when applied topically (think Bengay). When ingested, Methyl salicylate metabolizes to produce salicylic acid--a compound similar to Aspirin. It's no wonder that Native Americans used Wintergreen berries and leaves as a pain reliever, and passed this knowledge on to the European settlers.

A tasty medicinal tea can be made of dried Gaultheria leaves steeped in hot water and then left to ferment for a few days--fermentation aids the formation of Methyl salicylate and intensifies the "Wintergreen" flavor of the tea. British colonists were known to have used Wintergreen tea as a substitute for the English variety during the days of the American Revolution.