Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is found in shrublands and in drier forests on Nantucket.
Even in winter, when browns, greys or sage greens of lichens dominate the island color palette, you can still find some vivid evergreens while walking the trails of conservation properties around the island. Several species have red berries to add even more visual interest. The crimson/dark green color scheme is apparently a successful evolutionary trait in the winter woods, and for many northern human cultures it has also come to symbolize life carrying through the cold dormant months.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
, pictured above, is actually a tiny shrub with leathery green leaves that may sometimes take on a burgundy hue. As a child, I learned this plant as “checkerberry.” I thought that name arose because they reminded somebody of the red playing pieces on a checker board. However, it actually refers to another species of plant, the chequer tree, a species of serviceberry (Sorbus)
that early European colonists were reminded of when they first encountered it. It seems they must have been pretty homesick, because there’s not much of a resemblance!
By any name, this plant is easy to learn how to identify: the berries have a star-shaped pattern on their base, the blossom end scar where the flower once was. Their brilliant red color and pleasant sharp spicy wintergreen odor and flavor make them quite easy to spot. The leathery evergreen leaves are also filled with the same essential oils, leading to another common name for the plant, “teaberry,” since it has been used to brew a spicy tea. The leaves remain on the plant and may turn a burgundy color over the winter but will green up in the spring and also produce fresh leaves at the top of the plant.
Interestingly, the chemical in wintergreen that gives it a spicy odor (methyl salicylate) is also found in black birch (Betula lenta)
bark, from which it was once extracted in large quantities and used for flavorings and medicines. Most of the methyl salicylate used commercially is now synthesized in the lab. You may recognize the scent as the one used in Bengay sports creme, which was another reference I didn’t understand as a child!
On Nantucket, this tiny shrub may be found in the leaf litter of oak and pine forests, but it’s also common in coastal heathland and low shrubland, and even makes its way in sandplain grasslands.
If you’d like to have some wintergreen closer to home, there are several cultivated varieties that may be purchased from nurseries. If you have some pine/oak forest or low shrubland, with at least part sun, you can add them as groundcover plants. As long as the soil is well-drained and sandy, which is common on Nantucket, you should have no trouble growing these cultivars. They are the same species as our native wintergreen, but growers have selected plants with particular characteristics, like extra-large showy berries.
Just be sure you know what you’re buying — people often confuse wintergreen with winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
, which is a deciduous holly, prefers wetter habitats, and can grow 12′ tall. To make matters worse, there are cultivated varieties of wintergreen that are called ‘Winterberry.’ So check your labels for the correct scientific name — and a sniff test won’t hurt in this case either!
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a common native holly, found in wetland edges around the island. Photo credit: K. A. Omand