Common Name: Wintergreen, checkerberry, boxberry, mountain tea, teaberry – The leaves persist through the winter and are notable for their luster.
Scientific Name: Gaultheria procumbens – The genus is named for Dr. Jean-Francois Gaultier, a Quebec physician who identified the plant to Peter Kalm, a colleague of Sweden’s Linnaeus who classified it according to taxonomy. The species name is the Latin form of procumbent, which means leaning forward referring to the way that the flowers are suspended from the petioles
Potpourri: Oil of Wintergreen is a recognized medicinal in the United States Pharmacopoeia. The primary active ingredient of the oil, methyl salicyclate, is closely related to acetylsalicyclic acid, popularly known as aspirin. They are also similar in the deleterious effects of overdose. Aspirin can be fatal in dosages as low as 10 grams (about 30 tablets). Wintergreen oil, though less ubiquitous, requires only about 3 grams.
Native Americans used wintergreen leaves to make a tea to treat aches and pains from any of a variety of ailments including arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago and gout. Early colonists adopted this practice and wintergreen became an official medicine for arthritis in 1820. Making wintergreen tea requires that the leaves be soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours since the volatile oil is the result of fermentation, which requires this amount of time for the chemical reaction to proceed.
Wintergreen oil’s pleasant aroma and taste combined with its pain-killing attributes made it a prime ingredient of patent medicines of the late 19th Century. Factory distilling of wintergreen oil created a supply that was used as a flavoring for chewing gum, breath fresheners, candy, and root beer. Its therapeutic attributes as a skin lotion resulted in its use as not only a liniment, but as a treatment for leather to make it pliable for book-binding. Since it takes about a ton of wintergreen leaves to make a pound of oil, most commercial production today is a synthetic form made with twigs from birch trees.
There is a fair amount of confusion due to the use of wintergreen for another flower, which is called the striped or spotted wintergreen. It’s scientific name. Chimaphila maculata reflects the fact that is persistent in the winter, as cheima means winter and philein means love in Greek. The species name maculata is from the mottled leaves. While the two plants are easy to tell apart, the become conflated due to their similar habitat.