Wildcraft Wednesday: Berry'd Beneath the Snow
Even on the snowiest days- like today! -edible and medicinal plants can still be found in a pinch. One of the hardiest Winter plants I know of is Gaultheria fragrantissima, more commonly known as Wintergreen, or Tea Berries. They're such a treat to see glinting up at you from under the snow, and also such a treat to eat! Sweet, mildly minty... They aren't very filling, but they do give a refreshing sensation to your tongue that really encourages you to stop and savor the feeling of the brisk Winter wind!
Wintergreen isn't very hard to find in the forest. It grows low to the ground in dense clumps, typically in the shade at the base of trees or alongside thick moss. Oftentimes, the shiny green leaves are the first thing to be noticed, especially in the snow. Gently lifting the leaves, however you'll find clusters of the striking red berries and, once crouched down, you'll start to notice all the other berries all around! The plants tend to be slow-growing, but they produce an abundance of berries: especially for the plant's size.
Typically, these Wintergreen berries and leaves are used commercially to flavor candies, gum, and tea with their fragrant mintiness, or to create Wintergreen essential oil. However, I find the essential oil to be limited in use, since it is completely unsafe for consumption. The chemical found in the volatile oils of Wintergreen is very similar to aspirin, and even topical use that would typically be appropriate is discouraged in pregnant women, people who take warfarin/blood thinning medication, and for children under 3. Because of the risk of children getting it in their mouths, however, I would truly avoid the use of Wintergreen essential oil for all children, if possible. However, adults can use this oil topically to provide relief to achy joints or to ease muscle tension. The essential oil can also be used topically to treat gout and arthritis, and its fragrance makes it a great option as a vapor rub when mixed with coconut oil and applied to the chest. This same benefit can be taken from boiling the leaves and berries and breathing in the vapors. The diluted oil also makes an excellent cleaning agent for around your home!
But for the purposes of wildcrafting, my favourite use is to make a simple tea with its leaves. The young leaves make tea with the mintiest flavor, but the mature leaves still make a delicious tea. It's a good treatment for an upset stomach or for gas, much like peppermint, or for a sinus headache, but best of all is that sense of invigoration one gets from drinking the tea with a spoonful of honey! The potency of the tea can be increased by steeping it and fermenting it for several days and straining out the plant matter. You can also apply the chilled tea to rashes and blemishes as a wash for your skin, providing relief from itching as well as a gentle and refreshing anti-microbial treatment.
Next time you see these hidden gems, don't pass them up without tasting the berries. Best of luck, and Happy Hunting!