Consider the humble wintergreen, always with us, always underfoot, but scarcely noted or commented on, cause it’s a wonderful little plant. This one was photgraphed in a sea of wintergreen on some unnamed mountain in the Back Mountain.
Genus: Gaultheria procumbens
When you see the word wintergreen, you most likely think of the sweet, spicy taste of Wint-O-green Life Savers or some other breath mint or chewing gum that’s common on grocery store shelves. At one time, the source of their flavor would have been wintergreen or sweet birch (Betula lenta), whose bark and twigs are easier to harvest and yield a volatile oil virtually identical to that of wintergreen. Today, the flavoring in these products—and most of the commercial “wintergreen essential oil” that you can buy—is synthetic, but the wintergreen plant is still highly regarded and used by foragers and herbalists for both food and medicine, and gardeners welcome it to carpet shady landscapes.
Wintergreen (G. procumbens) is native from Newfoundland to Manitoba and south to Georgia. It is hardy from USDA Zone 3 to the cooler parts of Zone 7. Look for the plants in well-drained woodlands and clearings, and in acidic, frequently poor soil in the shade of evergreens such as mountain laurel and rhododendrons.