Wintergreen is a native American creeping plant

December 2, 2020

Canada is often said to be just like the United States, only way more polite. Though we both speak English, there are differences in pronunciation, with Canadian English sounding much more like British English. So been is pronounced “bean,” figure is “figger,” and a long o in “sorry.” And in Canada you don't buy aspirin, you buy ASA, short for acetylsalicylic acid. Aspirin was a trademark owned by the German company Bayer, but during World War I, Bayer's U.S. assets and trademarks were confiscated by the United States.

Call it ASA or aspirin, we consume over 50 billion aspirin pills every year.

Before trademarks, and indeed before Canada and the United States existed, Native Americans brewed a tea from a plant rich in acetylsalicylic acid to treat headaches, rheumatic symptoms, fever, sore throat, and various other aches and pains. This plant is Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Originally, "wintergreen" referred to any plants that stay green all winter. We now use the term "evergreen" for such plants, and wintergreen came to mean one specific plant.

Wintergreen is a native American creeping plant that fruits with bright red berries that stay on the plant from July to the next April. In the wild it forms beautiful ground covers. Wintergreen is a common flavoring in everything from chewing gum, mints and candies to tobacco snuff. It is also commonly used in toothpaste and mouthwash. It even shows up as a flavoring in that American favorite, root beer.

Wintergreen is a popular indoor Christmas decoration that adds a natural, festive touch.

Crush the red berries and leaves, and you release the unmistakable fresh scent of wintergreen.

You can cut wintergreen and use it for a short-term flower arrangement or pot up some plants and treat them as houseplants.

Indoors, wintergreen does best in bright light but out of direct sunlight. As a woodland ground cover, wintergreen will only put up with 1-2 hours of direct sunlight, preferably very early or late in the day.

Wintergreen grows best in a cooler room, preferring temperatures of about 60-70°F. Water whenever the top half-inch of soil is dry. You won't need to fertilize wintergreen at all.

To plant wintergreen in the garden, choose a site where it will get dappled sunlight. Under trees and shrubs is ideal. It does best in well-drained soil that contains a lot of organic matter, so you may want to dig in compost or peat moss before planting. The soil pH should be between 5.5 and 6.5.

You can pretty much plant it and forget it. If the plants get leggy or sparse, just cut them back to old wood in spring. In time, a single plant will spread to 3-3 1/2 feet across. As a bonus, the dark-green leaves change to a deep red or purple in the winter.

You can distill wintergreen oil from your plants. Wintergreen oil is used to lubricate, clean and preserve the metal surfaces of firearms, and is also great for removing rust and degreasing machinery. Wintergreen is especially effective for treating seawater corrosion.

Wintergreen oil can restore the flexibility of hardened rubber components. A big advantage of wintergreen oil over chemical substitutes is that the oil is non-toxic and biodegradable.

So, plant wintergreen and you will have indoor decorations or a low-maintenance ground cover. In a pinch you could chew some leaves for fresh breath and to relieve headaches. Just like aspirin. Or ASA, as they say in Canada. Eh?

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter