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Wintry Wintergreen

By Audrey Stallsmith

wintergreen

Away, into the forest depths by pleasant paths they go,
He with his rifle on his arm, the lady with her bow,
Where cornels arch their cool dark boughs o'er beds of wintergreen. . .

"The Strange Lady" by William Cullen Bryant

One of my only memories of a grandfather who died when I was young is the wintergreen tang of his pipe tobacco. Officially titled gaultheria procumbens, wintergreen is a New World herb, named after a Canadian doctor called Gaulteir.

Also known as teaberry, boxberry, deerberry, chink, or mountain tea, the six-inch plant flourishes in the shade of other evergreens. It produces small, white, bell-shaped flowers intermittently through late spring and summer and red berries in autumn. Those berries, which persist through the winter, are often eaten by deer, partridges, and other wildlife.

American colonists brewed wintergreen's leathery leaves as a substitute for heavily-taxed imported tea. They also added the berries to brandy to make a winter tonic, and their children gnawed on the roots to prevent tooth decay. Those roots were sometimes included, along with sassafras, in recipes for root beer.

The essential oil of wintergreen is mostly composed of methyl salicylate, which makes its effects similar to those of aspirin. Since it can be absorbed through the skin, it was a popular ingredient in rheumatism rubs and was sometimes applied to aching teeth.

It also flavored a variety of dental and medicinal products. These days, however, a synthetic version or oil of birch bark is often substituted for it.

That may be just as well since pure oil of wintergreen can be toxic, and has caused death by inflammation of the stomach. The plant and berries are safe enough, though, and will soothe sore throats, head and body aches, stomach or bladder irritations, and skin problems.

Children also enjoy chomping wintergreen candies in an unlighted room to see them "spark." Since wintergreen absorbs ultraviolet waves, it gives off a blue light, which is only obvious in the dark.

With its little white bells, the plant seems "magical" to me too. I once wrote a poem about an overgrown orchard, which concludes:

Over a carpet of ground pine and teaberries
The dogs chase a phantom rabbit
Towards Wonderland.

Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of theMissouri Botanical Garden Library.