American wintergreen

The autumn collour of G. procumbens and flower
The autumn collour of G. procumbens and flower / Wikimedia
  • Pretty white or pink bell-shaped flowers in summer and scarlet berries and purplish foliage in winter

The genus Gaultheria is a member of the Ericaceae (heather) family and has pendulous, white or pink bell-shaped flowers and aromatic, glossy green leaves. In the autumn, large red, pink or white (depending on species) fruits form. Common names include eastern teaberry, creeping wintergreen, boxberry, American wintergreen, chickenberry and mountain tea among many others.

It is native to America, from Newfoundland to Manitoba and south to Georgia, where it is found growing in woodland clearings or in the shade of mountain laurels and rhododendrons. Gaultheria procumbens is a low growing species often used for ground cover. Its branches spread out around the plant just a few centimetres off the ground. The upright stems bear clusters of small oval, glossy leaves which are a paler tone underneath. The dainty nodding flowers appear from early summer and are followed by striking red berries which may stay on the plant the entire year making it possible for a display of berries and flowers at the same time. The leaves of this species have the added advantage of turning purple and red in the autumn.

Although Wintergreen will grow slowly and remain fairly compact, it will benefit from being cut back into the old wood every second year to rejuvenate growth.

Some members of the heather family will grow in open, exposed areas but Gaultheria prefers a shady, sheltered spot with no direct sunlight. The soil needs to be fairly acidic and although it will grow in neutral soils it dislikes lime. It is not drought tolerant and needs to be irrigated regularly in summer and occasionally in dry winters.

Wintergreen was once used as a minty flavouring for toothpastes and chewing gum. The leaves contain methyl salicylate, a compound with similar properties to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). Traditionally a tea was made from the leaves to help ease headaches or fevers but it can be dangerous for children, the elderly, pregnant women or anyone allergic to aspirin. The berries are also edible and can be cooked in cakes or used to make ice-cream or wine.