Foraging For Wintergreen

With winter in full swing and snow blanketing every surface, the bears are soundly hibernating in their dens, most plants are laying quietly dormant underground, and I have mostly limited my activities to sitting by the wood stove and drinking tea, but hardy as ever, wintergreen didn’t get the memo. 

As it’s name suggests, wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, is one of the few herbaceous plants that can be found green and happy beneath the snow, even in the darkest days of winter. Thriving in partial to complete shade, poor, acidic soil, and cold temperatures this hardy evergreen maintains it’s leathery green leaves and vibrant red berries all winter long, making it a favored species of foragers, herbalists, and landscapers. 
It’s striking appearance and cold, shade, and acid tolerance has made it a popular ground cover among gardeners, who often plant it beneath blueberry bushes and pine trees. Wintergreen grows wild throughout most of the great lakes states and New England, although it can be found at higher elevations as far south as Georgia. 

Two species of wintergreen, Gaultheria shallon and Gaultheria humifusa grow in western Canada and the U.S., but they are rather different from our eastern ally, the former growing into a thick shrub up to eight feet tall! 

Although, there are several species of low growing plants that favor the same habitat as wintergreen, including Uva ursi (bearberry),wintergreen is easily identified by it’s distinctive scent and its 1-2 inch oval leaves that are darker on top and lighter on bottom. Although each branch may appear to be an individual plant, it is more likely to be attached to a larger network of stem submerged just below the ground from which many of these 3-6 inch branches grow. In the fall, many the leaves will turn a rusty red, but for the majority of the year they are dark green and leathery. Being in the heath family, wintergreen has delicate, bell-shaped, white flowers very similar to those of blueberries and cranberries, which appear mid summer. 

Uva Ursi (left) and Wintergreen (right)

Wintergreen berries make for a refreshing trail nibble, despite being a bit dry and foamy. I’ve read that you can make pies, jams, and other sweets with these berries, especially if combined with other fruits to add juiciness. I’ve never had much luck with it and as such prefer them picked right from the plant. I find that I enjoy eating less than ten berries each year, but because of their strong flavor and mealy texture, that about satisfies my taste for it. 

Wintergreen leaves are okay to chew, but are too leathery to digest well and are best spat out after they’ve done their job to freshen your breath. One Acre Farm soaks the fresh leaves in alcohol to make a tasty extract to use in baking. Tea rich in vitamin C can be made from the leaves, but boiling water (or any sort of heat in fact) will volatilize the oils that give them their “wintergreen” taste, leaving you with a fairly mild tea, which can be used to warm you up after a chilly hike to gather it. To increase the flavor, the leaves can be steeped in cold water for several days until they begin to ferment, resulting in a bubbly beverage that is said to sooth an upset stomach. Although it may not translate to flavor, heating the leaves or berries will make your house smell wonderful! I like to keep a little ceramic bowl of leaves on my wood stove so that I can smell them occasionally as I walk by. The scent starts out as strongly minty but eventually dissipates into a somewhat floral smell, almost like lilac or rose. 

In my opinion, wintergreen’s best strength lies not in it’s culinary or horticultural applications, but in it’s medicinal properties. The oil in wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, which is extremely similar to the acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin. Chewing on the leaves will not only refresh your breath but it is also an effective painkiller. The fresh leaves can help to alleviate pain from canker sores or toothaches and the tea makes a good oral rinse. It is also effective elsewhere on the body to ease pain internally and externally. 

It is so similar, in fact, that those with allergies to aspirin, pregnant and nursing women, children, and those on any prescription medications that are contraindicated to aspirin should avoid wintergreen.

Today, wintergreen essential oil is gaining popularity as a fragrance in diffusers, massage oils, and lotions and as flavoring in toothpaste and pharmaceuticals, but it’s extreme potency makes it much more toxic than the plant in it’s original form. According to the book, Essential Oil Safety by Tisserand and Young, as little as 15mL of pure wintergreen essential oil can (and has) killed an adult when ingested. 15mL of wintergreen essential oil (1 tablespoon of methyl salicylate) contains 21 grams of salicylate. There are 0.325g (325 mg) of salicylate in a single aspirin, meaning that dose would be equivalent to taking about 65 adult aspirin tablets!

It is safe to use the fresh plant in moderation, but potentially hazardous when extracted into the essential oil form because a much higher quantity of the fresh plant is used to make just a single drop of oil than you would ever use unprocessed. For example, 60 roses go into producing just one drop of rose essential oil. If 15 mL can kill an adult, and there are an average of 20 drops in one mL, that is 300 drops. Can you imagine how much raw wintergreen goes into making that much? More than you would ever eat.

NEVER use wintergreen essential oil internally and practice extreme caution when using it diluted topically. In my opinion, it is best forgo the use of wintergreen essential oil  all together and to either stick with the fresh plant or choose an alternative herb. 

 Many people enjoy a nibble of the fresh plant here and there and there are no known overdoses when it is used this way, but I do not recommend eating handfuls of wintergreen berries and leaves. Use it as a small snack, not a meal. 

Although wintergreen leaves can be picked year round, I prefer to harvest it the winter when its bright red berries are a beautiful sight against the snow and their taste is even more refreshing to the lips than to the eyes. Despite it’s cold hardiness, wintergreen is actually disturbed rather easily so remember to harvest with care. Take only one leaf from each branch and move around often so that you are harvesting from different individuals. Wintergreen is very sensitive to foot traffic, so stay on the trail while harvesting so as not to trample them. As it is an increasingly rare, but potent, herb, do not take more than you need. A small handful is more than enough, especially considering that as it dries, the oils evaporate and reduce it’s strength greatly, so it can only be used fresh. 

As I was researching wintergreen in my absolute favorite foraging guide I stumbled across a wonderful tale from the Lenape, who lived in what is today Pennsylvania and grew beautiful dry beans that have been preserved by seed savers and given fantastic names like Blue Shackamaxon and Purple Kingsessing. In their book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean write, “According to Lenape Indian legend, wintergreen’s origin is connected to the extinction of the mastodons. These pachyderms were put on the earth for people to use. But they became too destructive and unruly. A great, bloody battle ensued in a bog, with all the other animals fighting the mastodons. The mastodons lost, and to this day, you can sometimes still find their bones in the bogs. The Great Spirit compensated for the loss of meat by transforming the spots of blood into wintergreen berries, which still dot the bogs with red to this day”. 

So next time you are near a chilly northern bog, look for these tasty red berries gleaming like gems against the snow, and who knows, you might even find some mastodon bones as well. 

Before consuming any wild plant, be sure to positively identify it first. While the company of an experienced local forager is unparalleled there are many great guide books out there that come pretty close. Here are a few of my favorites: 

Disclaimer: This blog is just my opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be accurage or complete. Do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog. If you click on any of the links in this blog, I make a small amount of money from it, at no extra cost to you. I am not sponsored by any of these companies, I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medican practictioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment.

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