Foraging is a delightful way to connect with the outside world and reap the benefits of the beautiful, therapeutic herbs that nature has to offer. One of these plants, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), is a common plant that can be found growing in nearly every state, but many are unaware of its many uses and benefits.
The first step to discovering the true beauty of this herb is getting to know it—where it grows, what it looks like, how it smells, and everything else that makes it so special. Learning about the plant before you use it will make all of your foraging experiences much more enjoyable.
This blog is going to dive into every aspect of identifying wintergreen, as well as its benefits and uses. We’ll also touch on some of the challenges in foraging for this herb and give you tips on how to avoid common mistakes.
To start learning about foraging for wintergreen, let’s talk about how to identify it. Since it grows in most of the continental United States it’s a pretty easy herb to find.
The first step in making a positive identification is to look at the leaves, flowers, and berries—they give away many clues as to whether you have found the right plant.
Leaves: Wintergreen is a small low-growing, evergreen with leathery leaves that are oval, mildly toothed, and 1 to 2 inches long. The leaves are dark green and waxy, but in the colder months, the leaves may turn partially or completely red.
Flowers: the flowers are bell-shaped and white, hanging from the upper leaf axils in midsummer. Each bell has 5 lobes along its tip.
Berries: the berries are small and have a rich red color. They’re also persistent, remaining on plants through the fall, winter, and spring.
Tip: If in doubt about identifying wintergreen, crush the foliage or berries between your fingers and take a sniff. The distinctive minty aroma will let you know if you’ve got the right plant.
Where, When, and How to Harvest
Wintergreen is a woodland plant that grows in partial to full shade in moist, acidic soils. Gather wintergreen leaves throughout the year and wintergreen berries in fall through winter and into early spring.
When harvesting, pick the top few inches of the stem, with the leaves and berries attached.
Health & Medicinal Benefits
Indigenous peoples traditionally used wintergreen leaf t to relieve fever, sore throat, upset stomach, and ulcers. Often, the leaves would be crushed into a poultice for treating muscle, nerve, and joint pain as well as swelling, rash, inflammation, and toothache.
We now know the reason why – wintergreen contains methyl salicylate—an ingredient similar to aspirin that has many uses, including pain relief and the soothing of digestive issues. If you are allergic to aspirin, you should avoid wintergreen.
A sweet-smelling oil can be extracted from its leaves. This oil is used in chewing gum, candies, dental hygiene products, and topical salves due to its potent antibacterial and analgesic properties.
Aside from its uses listed above, this herb can also be used in tea and is a wonderful winter tonic for the relief of minor aches and pains.
This versatile plant can also be used to make an excellent mosquito repellant when mixed with aloe vera gel and applied topically to the skin.
Takeaway: With proper identification and dosing guidelines, you can safely enjoy the many benefits of wintergreen in your daily life
The one plant that gets most often mistaken for wintergreen is partridgeberry (Mitchell repens). Both are small low-growing evergreen plants that produce red berries. They also like to grow in similar shady, acidic conditions. It’s easy to see how the two can get confused. There are, however, a few marked differences:
- Partridgeberries are bland in flavor and do not emit any minty aroma when their leaves are crushed.
- During its fruiting season, you can easily tell partridgeberry apart from wintergreen because they have berries that look like they have two eyes. The berries have this appearance because each berry is actually two berries that have fused during development. Each flower on the plant is pollinated individually and then grows close together. By the time the fruit ripens in the late summer, only a single berry remains.
Best Practices of Foraging
It’s always good ethical foraging practice to never strip any entire area; graze over a number of patches to take a little from each.
Don’t yank up plants by their roots, rather snap off the end couple of inches of the stalks. This leaves the root systems in place to allow for the plants to regrow and rejuvenate.
Wintergreen is wonderfully prepared as tea. To make it:
- Pack a jar with wintergreen leaves and infuse them by pouring water over them and letting them steep.
- Place a lid on your jar, cover with a tea towel, and leave on your counter for about 3 days or until you see bubbles forming.
- Strain, and warm the tea gently just to drinking temperature.
- Add torn leaves and berries to a small jar and fill until it is about 2/3 or 3/4 full.
- Pour in enough vodka (80 – 100 proof) to cover the plant material
- Cap the jar, keep it in a dark place at room temperature for at least a month. Give it a shake every couple of days.
- After about a month to 6 weeks, the tincture should have developed a nice strong flavor. Strain into tincture bottles.
Take 5-15 drops as needed.
Disclaimer- I am not a medical professional. All information shared here is for information and entertainment only. Do your own research and consult your health care provider before treating yourself with any product, plant or mixture.