by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Wintergreen is a redeeming herb; it asks little from its caretaker and in return provides visual and culinary appeal. More than one gardener has enjoyed chewing on a leaf for refreshment, and more still are pleased that the plant thrives happily in that hard-to-fill shady nook of the garden. Most impressive is that in late fall, when most herbs are beginning to decline, wintergreen defiantly stands alone in a display of bright green leaves and vivid red berries. Gaultheria procumbens was given its genus name by the 18th century Canadian physician, Dr. Gualteir, but it was actually Mother Marie de L'Incarnation who helped to spread the plants medicinal reputation after learning of its benefits from Native Americans in the 16th century. Several Native American tribes used wintergreen as a tea for colds and flu,and as a poultice to ease arthritis and rheumatism.
Early American settlers also recognized the value of wintergreen and included it in their kitchens as well as their medicine cabinets. They made a winter tonic of the berries blended with brandy, and their children were given the roots to chew to deter tooth decay. The colonists of the American Revolution often enjoyed wintergreen tea as an alternative to the imported tea so heavily taxed.
Early medicinal formulas using wintergreen to reduce fever, body aches, and muscular pains, were probably quite effective indeed. The active constituent found in the leaves and berries is methyl salicylate, and is closely related to salicylic acid - the forerunner of aspirin. Unlike aspirin, a moderate internal dosage of wintergreen acts as a stomachic and relieves indigestion rather than inducing it.
Wintergreen oil is still a popular addition to toothpaste, gum, candy, and root beer, although true wintergreen oil has for the most part been replaced with a synthetic version made from birch bark. Cosmetically, wintergreen speeds the healing of skin disorders, and when added to lotions it acts as a natural softener readily absorbed by the skin. In fact, oil of wintergreen was once used to soften leather used in bookbinding. As a liniment, wintergreen is an important ingredient of the popular lotion to relieve overexerted muscles: Ben Gay.
Wintergreen prefers a sandy or peaty soil and is found growing wild from Canada and throughout the U.S. middle and eastern states. It will take to a shady to partly shady location and actually makes an attractive and prolific groundcover. Its method of propagation is equally accommodating, being successfully grown from seed, cuttings, layering, or division. Very few pests bother this perennial, and the appearance of small solitary white flowers blooming from June through August makes this plant an attractive addition to any herb tea garden. In fact, wintergreen was once such a popular tea herb that it earned the nickname of "tea berry." The red berries, which appear in the fall, should be picked as soon as they achieve their vivid color. They may be safely eaten raw, or if you can harvest enough of them, they can be baked in pies or tarts.
Here's an interesting trick to try next time you have wintergreen candy available: Since wintergreen absorbs ultraviolet waves, a candy eaten while in the dark will emit a blue-green light!
For every cup of boiling water used add 1 tsp. chopped fresh leaves securely tied in a square of muslin cloth. Steep for 5-6 minutes. You may like this tea iced as well.
Natural Root Beer
5 gallons water
1/2 cup dry yeast
1 1/2 gallons molasses
1/2 cup wintergreen leaves, rinsed & dried
1 cup sassafras root bark (available in many health food stores)
Combine water and molasses and heat just to the boiling point. Remove from heat and allow to stand for two hours. Add the wintergreen, sassafras root bark, and yeast. Stir just until blended. Allow to ferment overnight at room temperature. Strain and refrigerate.