With its distinctive aroma and beautiful foliage, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a low growing evergreen that is typically found in the shaded woodland areas of midwestern and northeastern America and Canada. It can also make an attractive container plant provided that the conditions for growing are met.
Wintergreen thrives in:
- sandy or loamy soil
- neutral to highly acidic soil
- part shade to full shade
- medium moisture
According to Fine Gardening, the wintergreen grows at a medium rate, and can reach approximately 1' x 3' at its largest size. Wintergreen grows in attractive clumps filled with elliptical, slightly toothed leaves. When young, the wintergreen’s leaves range from a pale green to a yellow-green. Then, as the herb matures, the leaves will become a richer shade of green on top with a paler shade on the underside of the leaf. The leaves also become glossier, and take on an almost rubber-like feel.
During the late summer months, wintergreen produce white flowers that resemble bells, and it is these flowers that then develop into wintergreen’s striking red berries.
The berries and leaves of the plant have a long history of medicinal and dietary use. For many years, wintergreen berries were used to add distinctive flavor to everything from desserts to toothpaste. It was also a flavor often added to cough drops and medicines due to wintergreen’s cough suppressant (antitussive) qualities.
While the flavor of wintergreen still remains popular, nowadays it is often a synthetic flavoring that is used rather than actual plant material. The leaves have also been used to make tea, and were sometimes used as a substitute for black tea.
Medicinally, Native Americans used the berries and leaves as a remedy for ailments such as headaches, pain, and fever. This is primarily due to wintergreen being high in methyl salicylate, a constituent of the plant that essentially makes it natural aspirin.
In fact, wintergreen is so high in methyl salicylate that just an ounce of the essential oil is the equivalent of over 150 aspirin tablets, enough to be toxic. For this reason, wintergreen essential oil is used externally or as an aromatherapy oil.
Many people turn to diluted wintergreen oil to ease aches and pains such as rheumatism, stiff muscles, tendonitis, headaches, arthritis, eczema, and psoriasis. Some people have also turned to wintergreen to find relief from gout, bruises, edema, cellulite, obesity, and even as a hair care tonic.
Even after years as an herbalist, having had the opportunity to sample a number of herbs and oils, wintergreen is still one of my favorites for sore muscles and arthritic joints. The invigorating scent and cool feel of wintergreen is a delightful combination that should be experience by anyone in need of relief from aches and pains.
Sources: As shown above and years of professional experience as an herbalist.