Wintergreen, the 3-leaved plant pictured here
Family: Ericaceae, the Heath Family
Description: Native evergreen shrub 5-20cm tall. Leaves shiny and leathery. Stems erect or creeping. Red fruits, flowers white, 5-parted, bell-shaped.
Habitat: Woodlands/forest floor, open areas
Plant Parts Used: Leaves, fruits
Food: Tea, nibble
Medicine: Headaches, upset stomachs, colds, injuries, anti-inflammatory, chronic UTIs, astringent, anti-bacterial
The giveaway for the identification of this plant is its taste and smell: the crushed leaves and fruits exude a distinctive wintergreen smell and flavor. For headaches, Ray suggests slowly chewing on three to five leaves. Sue also praises wintergreen’s effectiveness in treating headaches, even headaches caused from smoke inhalation that sometimes occur when camping. Deb also praised the mild analgesic properties of wintergreen helpful for treating headaches. Terry-Anya and Patti describe wintergreen as a nice nibble; they both enjoy chewing on the berries and leaves. Sue also said that both chewing the leaf and drinking the tea eliminates bad breath. Deb said that wintergreen inhibits the bacteria that build up plaque, so chewing on a leaf can actually improve dental health. The tea is also anti-inflammatory and analgesic, especially good for colds and upset stomachs. Deb said that wintergreen tea, sometimes combined with bearberry, also called uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi), is helpful for treating chronic urinary tract infections. The tea is also astringent, which makes it helpful for treating diarrhea. A wintergreen salve is good for treating painful injuries. The compound methyl salicylate is also known as the “oil of wintergreen.” In Andrew Pengelly’s book, The Constituents of Medicinal Plants, he describes that methyl salicylate is usually produced synthetically and is found in topical ointments “as a counter-irritant and anti-rheumatic.” Pengelly also points out that internal use in very large doses is not recommended because methyl salicylate can be toxic if used excessively.
The Algonquin in Quebec also used wintergreen for headaches and as an analgesic. They made a poultice of the whole plant and applied this to the chest to relieve colds. They also used a tea for this purpose and for treating stomachaches. The Cherokee, Chippewa, and Iroquois also used wintergreen as a cold remedy.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Chilton, Patti. Telephone interview. 31 Oct. 2010.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
- Pengelly, Andrew. Constituents of Medicinal Plants: an Introduction to the Chemistry and Therapeutics of Herbal Medicine. Wallingford, Oxon, OX: CABI Pub., 2004. Print.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
- Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.