Family: Ericaceae, Gaultheria procumbens L.

Modified from: Simon, J.E., A.F. Chadwick and L.E. Craker. 1984. Herbs: An Indexed Bibliography. 1971-1980. The Scientific Literature on Selected Herbs, and Aromatic and Medicinal Plants of the Temperate Zone. Archon Books, 770 pp., Hamden, CT.

Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens L., is a perennial herb native to the eastern portion of North America. Formerly classified as Gaultheria repens Raf. and sometimes known locally as checkerberry, deerberry, Canada tea, spiceberry, teaberry, and mountain tea, this small, aromatic plant has long been valued for its wintergreen flavor. An evergreen, the species has creeping, underground stems and erect branches with narrow leaves. Its white flowers bloom in late summer followed by scarlet-colored fruit (11.1-96). Wintergreen is harvested in several Appalachian and northeastern areas of the United States.

The reported life zone for wintergreen is 8 to 177Cdeg;C with 0.6 to 1.3 meters annual precipitation and a soil pH of 4.8 to 7.5 (4.1-31). The plant is generally found in partially woody areas on moist sandy or peat soils of low pH and high in organic matter. Regenerating itself from seeds and suckers, the plant will grow in mountainous or valley areas and will tolerate most site conditions, including strip-mined areas (13.1-106).

Although usually collected in the wild, the task is very labor intensive, and cultivation of wintergreen is practiced. Leaves can be picked twice each growing season, with optimum harvest being from June to September, when the plant is higher in oil content (14.1-11). Commercial cultivation areas should mimic natural growing conditions.

The essential oil, extracted by distillation from fermented fresh material, is almost exclusively (96 to 99 percent) methyl salicylate. Fermentation allows the enzyme primeveroside to free the glycoside-bound methyl salicylate. The plant has little odor or flavor until the methyl salicylate is free. Oil content of fresh material is 0.5 to 0.8% by weight.

The oil of wintergreen is used as a flavoring agent in confections, chewing gums, nonalcoholic beverages, herbal teas, toothpaste, and mouthwashes. Synthetic methyl salicylate and, to a lesser extent, an essential oil obtained from young twigs and bark of the sweet or black birch tree, Betula lenta of the Betulaceae family, have largely replaced the use of natural wintergreen for flavoring of products.

As a medicinal plant, wintergreen has been traditionally as an analgesic, astringent, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, stimulant, and tonic. The plant is used as a folk remedy against colic, headaches, body aches and pains, inflammations, rheumatism, sore throats, skin diseases, and tooth decay. The essential oil can be absorbed by the skin. Methyl salicylylate, a methyl ester of acetylsalicylic acid, is a gastric irritant and known to be toxic if ingested in relatively small amounts, resulting in nausea, vomiting, acidosis, pulmonary edema, pneumonia, convulsions, and death (11.1-136, 14.1-35). There have, however, been no reported cases of toxic ingestions of plant material (11.1-135). Wintergreen is reported to have mitogenic activity and is used in several insecticidal and insect repellent preparations (1.2-9).

Gaultheria cumingiana Vidal is an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine against liver cirrhosis and ascites, traumatic injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, and pains in the joints and back (11.1-10). Gaultheria hispidula (L.) Muhlenb. ex Bigel has been used as a folk remedy in the treatment of cancer (11.1-50). Gaultheria fragrantissima Wallich., a native of India, Ceylon, and Burma and commonly known as Indian wintergreen, reaches heights of 30 meters and yields an oil of wintergreen similar to that of American wintergreen (1.2-9). Bitter wintergreen, an evergreen herb whose leaves are sometimes used for medicinal purposes, is actually Chimaphila umbellata (L.) W. Barton of the Pyrolaceae family.

[Note: References listed above in parentheses can be found in full in the original reference].

Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index

Last modified 6-Dec-1997