Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Chimaphila maculata, or Striped Wintergreen. Also known as Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, or Prince’s Pine, wintergreen is a hardy medicinal herb that stays viable all through the winter.
Ranging from Nova Scotia to Georgia and from the east coast to the Mississippi, wintergreen prefers rich, established hardwood forests. It is found in both upland and lowland areas, but is definitely a deep woods herb – it cannot tolerate full sun. Considered rare and even endangered in some states, wintergreen is common in the Southern Appalachians. It has no deadly or toxic mimics. Interestingly, striped wintergreen bears no relation whatsoever to common wintergreen – the creeping evergreen groundcover common in cool mountain coves, that bears edible red berries. They are from two totally separate families of plants.
Striped wintergreen is an evergreen perennial herb. It grows between 2” and 8” tall from a creeping rhizome. It has attractive variegated 1” to 2” toothed lanceolate leaves that are a bright green in the spring and summer, and turn much darker in fall and winter. In late spring and early summer, it presents large, nodding white flowers in clusters of three to five. The flower buds have small red spots on them – I wondered about the origin of the name “Spotted Wintergreen” (since the leaves are very obviously striped) and this is why.
Striped wintergreen’s primary value lies in being a powerful, reliable, year-round medicinal plant. It is a true lifesaving herb in the dead of winter, with a wide range of uses. The leaves contain compounds such as arbutin, sitosterol, and ursolic acid, and are useful as an analgesic, antibacterial, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, rubefacient, stimulant and tonic. A poultice made from the leaves is useful for treating pain from cuts, scrapes, bruises, and sore muscles. It also has antiseptic qualities which can help prevent infection in open wounds. An infusion of the leaves is effective in treating rheumatism, colds, and upper respiratory infections. It also has powerful abilities to treat kidney and other urinary tract infections. A tea is also good as a febrifuge – it can induce sweating and break a fever.
Unlike some medicinal plants, striped wintergreen also has the benefit of being delicious. A hot cup of wintergreen tea sweetened with local honey warms your heart and feeds your soul. Chewing a few leaves will freshen your breath and help with a dry mouth, in addition to treating sore throats and mouth sores.
In early America before modern medicine, there was a need for a beverage that people (especially children) could drink to treat and prevent a wide range of ailments that also didn’t taste awful. Wintergreen was combined with sassafras root and several other native medicinal herbs, brewed, sweetened, and bottled… and thus root beer was born. The medicine was so tasty that over time, people stopped drinking for its intended purpose and it became purely a beverage. Most mass-produced root beer has no wintergreen, sassafras, or anything else of medicinal value, but there are dozens of “craft” root beer breweries that still make it the old-fashioned way – wintergreen and all. It’s pricier, but I can personally attest that it’s worth every penny. Give it a try and see how our pioneer ancestors drank it. It’ll put hair on your chest and cure what ails ya.
This is our last #WildEdibleWednesday for 2017 – refer to yesterday’s blog post for our reasons why. But worry not – we’ll be back on schedule in January with a new plant every week. If you’re interested in learning about wild edible and medicinal plants that you can rely on through the dead of winter, you should join us for our Winter Edition of Wilderness Survival Basics – January 12-14, 2018! See you then!