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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Bright red berries can last from September through spring. © Dick Bauer
Bright red berries can last from September through spring.

© Dick Bauer

December 2001

A secret under the snow

An earth essence with cheery red berries and vibrant green leaves lies just under foot in the dead of winter.

Anita Carpenter

Winter in the Northwoods: Short days, sub-freezing temperatures, desiccating frigid winds and deep snow covering a cold, quiet landscape. Yet life goes on.

To uncover one sign of it, brush aside the insulating snow quilt. Underneath you may discover a little woodland perennial with bright red fruits poking shiny, evergreen leaves through mosses and fallen pine needles. The plant's common name reflects its appearance – wintergreen. Its scientific name, Gaultheria procumbens, refers to its procumbent nature to hug the ground and form low, wide green carpets year-round on the forest floor.

Wintergreen prefers the acidic soils of northern Wisconsin. During summer, wintergreen creeps along, extending its underground stem (rhizome) and sending up new shoots. Giant wintergreen shoots may "tower" five to six inches tall while most stems are shorter. Topping each stem is a small cluster of three to five, thick, leathery, oval leaves, measuring three-quarters of an inch to two inches long. A close look through a hand lens shows the leaf edges are slightly serrated and rolled under. A short bristle extends out from each 'tooth' and lies parallel to the leaf margin.

Wintergreen is a shy, late bloomer flowering from late July into August. Individual frost-white,bell-like flowers about a quarter-inch long form from the fusion of five petals. They hang on tiny recurved pedicels, nodding from the points where the leaves grow out of the stem. Once pollinated, the flowers for, bright red fruits about one-third-inch long. They will ripen and hang on the plants from September into the following spring if ruffed grouse, mice, deer or bear have not discovered the aromatic morsels. Fruits that survive until spring either rot or drop to the ground releasing their seeds.

Wintergreen is well adapted for survival in cold climate and nutrient-poor acidic soil. Growing close to the ground, the plant is blanketed by snow avoiding the stress of prolonged exposure to sub-freezing temperatures, predators and desiccating winds. Its tough waxy leaves and rolled leaf edges reduce water loss. Wintergreen further adapts to its short growing season by retaining its leaves year-round. The plant only needs to find enough scarce nutrients to produce new stems, some new leaves, flowers and fruits each year.

Crush a wintergreen leaf. The fragrant aroma tickles your nostrils. Originally, wintergreen oil was extracted by crushing and steam distilling the leaves. One ton of leaves produced just one pound of pure oil. Fortunately the wintergreen oil we use today as a flavoring in gum, candy, breath mints and toothpaste is formed synthetically from chemicals, sparing widespread harvesting of wild wintergreen. A few drops of the potent oil goes a long way. The active component in wintergreen oil, methyl salicylate, is a chemical compound that is similar to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). When applied to skin, methyl salicylate is a local irritant, but its analgesic qualities make it a main ingredient in popular liniments that warm the skin and smell strongly of wintergreen.

After you've taken a good look at wintergreen on a snowy day, maybe pick one leaf before you cover the plant back up under a protective blanket of snow. Rub the leaf between your hands and inhale deeply. The refreshing essence on is a special gift of the northwoods on a cold, crisp winter day.

Anita Carpenter pokes around the woods, fields and trails near her Oshkosh home. Her favorite season is winter.