2018 July 28
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While this specimen is from Camp Nesbit, you are likely to find this plant in wooded areas all across the UP. It is Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens.


The fruits are pretty sparse, usually only one or two on a given plant, and on the small side (about half the diameter of a red cherry)


While the plant does have a pretty distinctive appearance that makes it easy to pick out by sight, the real distinguishing feature is the scent when you pick a leaf and break it in half. This is the original source of the wintergreen flavor that you are probably familiar with from those pink tablet candies that an elderly relative probably gave you when you were a kid, or Pepto-Bismol, or wintergreen life-savers[1]. The plants are also called “teaberry” in some places, because they can be used to make tea. The berries are edible, and taste like you might expect.

The reason for calling it “wintergreen” is that these are evergreen plants. They stay alive and green under the snow all winter. They actually bloom and set fruit in the fall, so this berry has come through the winter and is now just hanging around waiting for something to eat it and spread its seeds.

Mostly, the plant propagates by rhizomes, spreading to form ground-cover patches in large areas of the forest. They like acidic soil, so they are common in areas with evergreen trees.

[1] Fun fact about wintergreen life-savers: they are triboluminescent, which means they give off a flash of light when you crush them. The easiest way to see this is to take them into a really dark room, and crush them with a pair of pliers (or, with your teeth, but it’s hard to see inside your own mouth, so you’ll need a friend so you can take turns)

4 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    July 28, 2018


  2. Lyle R Laylin permalink
    July 28, 2018

    Experience sez…
    Wintergreen life savers and triboluminesence can be fun on dates!

  3. August 1, 2018

    I like the way Lyle thinks! 🙂

    If they live through the winter snow, do they stay green? Are they photosynthesizing using light filtered through the snow? Hmm. (I’m too lazy to look it up.)

  4. August 1, 2018

    They are definitely green all winter, I have seen their green leaves poking up as the snow melts around them.

    As for photosynthesis, I didn’t find anything specifically about wintergreen, but a research group at the University of Helsinki have confirmed that Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Lingonberries) continue photosynthesising at a low rate under the snow. They apparently just manage enough photosynthesis to keep their metabolism ticking over and re-use the CO2 that is produced by their own respiration. When the snow melts in the spring, they actually stop photosynthesizing briefly because there is suddenly too much light, and they can’t make use of it until they warm up a bit.

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