Your Local Wildwood Pharmacy
Gaultheria procumbens has the ring of a profound and mysterious elixir from the druggist's shelf. In laymen's terms it is called checkberry, mountain tea, teaberry, aromatic wintergreen and wintergreen. We know it best by the name wintergreen of which there are over 100 species worldwide. Our native species is named after Doctor Gaultier of Québec, who used wintergreen extensively in his home practice. Aboriginal people throughout the world have been familiar with this healing herb for thousands of years.
Wintergreen is a member of the heath family. It grows in almost all soils under all conditions from wet and organic to dry and rocky. The plant is evergreen, and grows to about 15 centimetres (6 inches) tall. Its shiney forest-green leaves, which turn to a gleaming maroon in winter, have a leathury surface that prevents loss of moisture during extreme summer drought.
The flowers are white and urn-shaped with five small lobes at the tip. They hang below the leaves on curving stems and appear early in June. The bright red berries ripen in September and remain on the plants until the following spring.
Wintergreen has its own arsenal of fungicides and bactericides and is seldom infected by disease, however, its delicious flavour and food value is its worst problem. White-tailed deer, black bears and the eastern chipmunk relish the plants and keep it cropped off close to the ground. Ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, ring-necked pheasants and wild turkeys eat both berries and leaves. Honey bees use the high-quality nectar during dry weather to make a superior honey.
It is as a medicinal herb that wintergreen is best known. Oil of wintergreen, distilled from the leaves, is composed primarily of methyl salicylate, a poison if used in large quantities. Minute amounts of this oil are used in flavouring toothpaste and other dental products, candy and lozenges. Aspirin, the most widely used drug after tobacco and caffeine, was originality extracted from wintergreen. When the poison (methyl) is removed from the oil, the crystalline material left behind is acetylsalicylic acid, the effective ingredient in aspirin.
As well as oil, the leaves of wintergreen contain a compound called arbutin. This material is more stable when it is heated than when it is cold, meaning that it retains its medicinal qualities when heated or rubbed into muscles for treating various aches and pains including rheumatism. A few drops of wintergreen oil on a soft cloth and placed on the brow is a common time-proven cure for headaches. As well, the stems of the plant are chewed by people around the world to prevent tooth decay.Wintergreen can found in the wild or may be grown from cuttings or seed in your garden. Choose a shaded area in dry, sandy soil amended with compost or a little peat moss.
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