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].
Last modified 6-Dec-1997