December 2004

Christmas Wintergreen – Gaultheria procumbens

Origin: Northeast USA


One of the most useful edible plants native to the United States, the tiny Christmas Wintergreen adds a bright spot of color to a drab winter landscape. This gem grows a scant four to six inches in height and spreads only about the same amount on a yearly basis. Small bell-shaped white flowers appear in late spring/early summer followed by bright red wintergreen-flavored berries in the fall.

The Christmas Wintergreen will grow readily in USDA zones 3 thru 7. Although not too picky since it is comfortable in either partial sun or shade, this plant does prefer acidic soil

Used primarily now days, as an edible groundcover, the Christmas Wintergreen was once popular as a home remedy for Native Americans and early settlers. Its leaves contain methyl salicylates which is the same ingredient in aspirin.

These leaves can also be used as an herbal tea year-round. To prepare a Winterberry Tea, pack a glass jar with the freshly harvested leaves, fill with distilled water and place the sealed container in a warm spot for several days. The mixture will be ready when the water becomes bubbly with fermentation. Remove the leaves and then heat up the remaining liquid to make up your tea. The flavored water can also be used for cooking or to combine with another tea.  

Although the flavorful leaves would be enough to set the Christmas Winterberry apart, the berries are edible as well. These fruits provide winter food for squirrels, chipmunks, grouse, wild turkeys and other assorted wildlife.