Here is a nice seasonally appropriate plant. It gets its name from its ability to stay healthy and dark green all winter, often enduring underneath the snow. This will be my second in a series of two posts about low growing ground creeping plants with oval- ish dark green thick waxy leaves and bright red berries that can be found throughout the winter, which are edible and medicinal. Last week I wrote about the Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens. The easiest way to tell these two plants apart is by the distinctive minty smell of the Wintergreen plant (note: it is not in the mint family) when a leaf is rubbed between the fingers. The fruit has a similar wintergreen taste when eaten. As mentioned last week, the fruit of the Partridgeberry has two small spots, resulting from where there were two paired flowers that became one berry; the Wintergreen berry has only one spot as each flower grows into one berry. The flowers of the wintergreen are small, white and bell-shaped. Another noticeable difference between the two plants is that Partridgeberry leaves grow opposite each other along the stem, while Wintergreen leaves grow a short distance above the main stem and are slightly toothed.
Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson says “The leaves can be gathered throughout the year and used to make an excellent tea. Both the tender new leaves and berries can be used as trailside nibbles or added to salads.” Wintergreen is also featured in Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants by Tom Brown, Jr. He has this to say about Wintergreen as a trailside nibble and tea leaf: “It was delicious, but he [Grandfather, his survival instructor- Ms. Doll] warned us that the plant was also a powerful medicine and that we should not eat too much. One or two leaves as a trailside nibble was all we should ingest. We came back the next day to savor the berries in the same way, and throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, we began to know the little plant quite well… We used to collect wintergreen leaves for tea anytime of the year. We knew this plant brother had powerful medicinal properties, so we used it sparingly. Using only a few leaves to a cup of boiling water, we would brew a delicious tea that was both refreshing in the summer and warming in the winter… The berries are also quite refreshing and a good trailside nibble when you are on the go… They also make a great addition to fry bread, ash cakes, and even pancakes.”
This brings us to the medicinal uses of Wintergreen. Here is an account from Tom Brown, Jr.’s above mentioned plant field guide, about the use of Wintergreen for an intense headache; “Despite the pain, we were curious as to how the wintergreen leaves that we used as tea could have any effect on our pain. After all, we had noticed no difference during the times we drank the wintergreen as tea. Grandfather explained that we only used a few leaves for our teas, which we boiled. He was going to use larger leaves and more of them, which he would steep. He took a large palmful of leaves and steeped them in a cup of hot water for over half an hour. We drank a little at a time until we finished the cup. Within an hour, our headaches were gone and we went on to complete the campout. Many years later, I learned that the oils found in the wintergreen leaf contain the chemical, methyl salicylate, which is a close relative to aspirin.
A strong tea of wintergreen also makes a good mouthwash for sore throats, cold sores, and gum ailments. A stronger tea can be brewed as a skin wash for skin problems and irritations. The leaves can also be used in poultice form, but repeated use of the poultice may cause skin irritation. I make a balm from the crushed leaves steeped in hot tallow, [leaves could also be infused into olive or other vegetable oil, used topically as oil or as an ingredient to salve- Ms. Doll] then cooled. I find it great for mild burns one may suffer around a campfire. Some old- timers also use wintergreen tea as a pain medication in another form. They breathe in the steam vapors produced by boiling the leaves vigorously.”
This methyl salicylate is a very interesting phenomenon. In the Peterson Field Guide Eastern/ Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, it is noted that methyl salicylate, the “chemical behind the aroma” of Wintergreen, “has recently been shown to enable plants to communicate with one another.” It is similar to aspirin, and is often used in over the counter external pain remedies. Originally found in the Wintergreen and Black Birch plants, methyl salicylate is now manufactured synthetically. As the above mentioned medicinal plant guide warns, “Essential oil [of Wintergreen- methyl salicylate] is highly toxic; absorbed through skin, harms liver and kidneys.” Apparently over use of even commonly used topical sore muscle remedies has caused fatalities. I am glad to have come across this information, as I have recently purchased a Chinese medicinal remedy called Red Flower Oil which lists methyl salicylate as its active ingredient. I didn’t know much about it for a while; I guessed that it must be similar to aspirin, based on the name. However I was not aware of the dangers of its use. Now that I am, I use Red Flower Oil on only one area of sore muscles at a time. I do find it is effective at relieving pain for a while. Note that it is the refined essential oil, methyl salicylate, that has caused fatalities, not the unprocessed Wintergreen plant itself; however as Tom Brown, Jr. stresses in his writings, the strong medicinal qualities of the plant should be respected and it should not be overused.