Wintergreen: a Splash of Winter Color

Illustration by Ben Levitt

Gaultheria procumbens goes by many common names – checkerberry, teaberry, and boxberry. But it is most often called American wintergreen. Even those unfamiliar with the plant will recognize its fresh flavor, a synthetic version of which frequently flavors chewing gum. I appreciate that flavor any time of year, but it is the welcome splash of bright red that wintergreen berries bring to winter snows that makes it one of my favorite wild edibles.

Wintergreen grows in the acidic soils of our northern forests. Technically it’s a diminutive shrub; its woody stems rise only a few inches above the ground from trailing rhizomes. It has thick, dark green, glossy, leathery leaves. They are oval with small, inconspicuous teeth. As one might deduce from their name, they are green all year and smell strongly with an unmistakable odor when broken. Partridge berry (Mitchella repens) looks similar – also evergreen and also red-berried – but can be easily distinguished because it lacks the distinctive scent. Partridgeberries are also safely edible, but rather tasteless.

Wintergreen berries mature in late summer from white, pendulous flowers that look like those of its relatives, the blueberries. The berries are edible right away and will persist for nearly a year. But my favorite time to eat them is in winter. So in the summer and fall, I’ll note where big patches of wintergreen grow so that I can find them when they are buried under winter snows.

I seldom find enough wintergreen berries to fill more than my palm. Usually no more than two or three grow on a stem. The berries are dry. Some would call them mealy, but I’ve seldom found someone who doesn’t enjoy their flavor. I tend to eat them as I find them, but on occasion in spring I have gathered sufficient quantities to add them to muffins or pancakes. Neither the berries nor the leaves can be stored or dried without diminishing their flavor; the methyl salicylate that imbues them with flavor is volatile and dissipates with drying, so it is best to use what you gather right away.

The leaves of the wintergreen are also flavorful and can be brewed into a refreshing tea. Because of the flavor’s volatility, long steeping times in low-temperature water are best. I’ l pour warm water over a cupful of leaves in a Mason jar, seal it, and allow it to brew for hours or days in my refrigerator. Then I’ll warm (not boil) it gently before I enjoy it.

Some claim that fermenting the berries brings out even better flavors, like in a wintergreen ale or beer, but I have never found enough wintergreen to make this possible. Besides, I am happy to enjoy wintergreen berries and teas just as I do now – scratching them out of the snow, finding a few precious berries, admiring their bright red color, and eating them while I sit in the woods watching a short winter day end – dreaming of when the woods will become green again.

Wintergreen Corn Muffins

INGREDIENTS
2 c ups white flour
2 cups corn meal
2 tsp. salt
8 tsp. baking powder
1 cup maple syrup, brown sugar, or white sugar
2 cups milk
2 eggs
1/2 cup melted butter or canola oil
1/3 cup wintergreen berries

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease or paper muffin tins. Sift dry ingredients. Add milk, eggs, and maple syrup or sugar. Beat until blended. Add butter. Mix until just blended. Add berries. Fill tins. Makes 18 to 24 muffins. They freeze well.

 
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