Wintergreen plants have edible berries, and bitter-tasting but mint-scented leaves that grow abundantly in North America and make a showy ground cover in shady gardens. The bright red berries and reddish-bronze leaves of wintergreen plants are a welcome sight in the winter months when there's little to look at in the landscape. The glossy green foliage and red berries of wintergreen plants make a festive holiday gift plant.
Plant in the ground early spring. This slow-growing plant grows a couple of inches a year and spreads by creeping rhizomes. One plant will eventually reach over 3 feet in width.
|Botanical Name||Gaultheria procumbens|
|Common Name||Boxberry, deerberry, ground berry, spiceberry, wintergreen|
|Plant Type||Evergreen ground cover|
|Mature Size||7 inches|
|Sun Exposure||Partial shade|
|Soil Type||Low nutrient, good drainage|
|Soil pH||Slightly to very acidic; 4.5 to 6.5|
|Flower Color||White, pale pink|
|Hardiness Zones||3-7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America from Georgia to Newfoundland|
Wintergreen Plant Care
The wintergreen plant is a species possessing its own unique sweet-spicy then bitter flavor that's distinct from mint or cinnamon. However, artificial flavorings have largely replaced real wintergreen as a commercial additive to foods,
Native plants like the wintergreen are primed to grow without any special tending, provided you have the environment they need to thrive. In their native habit, wintergreen plants grow in the dappled shade of temperate forests, where they creep along and form dense colonies among other acid-loving plants like mountain laurels and rhododendrons. Wintergreen plants don't need nutrient-rich soil, but they do appreciate good drainage.
The berries of wintergreen plants are edible in small to modest amounts for people and animals and make good forage for deer, birds, rodents, and bears. Wintergreen plant leaves are also used in herbal tea, but they are not loved by all due to their bitterness.
Keep the plants in bright filtered light, and keep them moist. A cool room will be less stressful for the plants than a hot window.
Winterberry plants are shade-tolerant and may even grow in dense shade but will produce few or no flowers in shadier locales. Bright filtered sunlight will keep plants from scorching, but give them enough energy to produce blossoms and fruit.
The wintergreen plant is a member of the heath (Ericaceae) family, and as such needs very acidic soils for plant health. You can perform a soil test to check the acidity of your soil, and if the pH is higher than 6.5, you must lower it with acid-rich amendments like peat moss, which also helps with drainage issues.
Regular moisture is important to the health of wintergreen plants, especially during berry production. The more sunlight your plants receive, the more moisture they will require. If rainfall is scarce, irrigate your wintergreen plants to the equivalent of an inch of rain per week.
Temperature and Humidity
Areas with mild summer temperatures and average to high humidity, as found in the Northeastern United States, are favorable to wintergreen plants. The plants fare poorly in the hot, dry sun of the Southwest.
No supplemental fertilizer is necessary for wintergreen plants. These native plants are adapted to grow in areas with poor soil lacking in nutrients. One way they compensate for low soil nutrition is by keeping their leaves from the previous season, conserving the energy it takes to grow new foliage.
Wintergreen vs. Lingonberry
Lingonberry plants (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) look very similar to winterberry plants, with a low-growing habit, oval-shaped leaves, and red berries. Both plants need acidic soil and grow in areas with cold winters. Lingonberries have a tart flavor that makes a good jam when sweetened, while fresh wintergreen berries have a menthol flavor that isn't suitable for cooking. Lingonberry plants grow with a more upright habit rather than as a ground cover and will reach about 16 inches in height.
Propagating Wintergreen Plants
Wintergreen plants spread by creeping rhizomes and, as such, are easy to propagate by division or cuttings. Stems will form new roots as they spread along the ground. Cut one of these new stem sections with roots attached and replant. You may also take a tip cutting from new growth in the spring. Plant the cutting in sterile seed starting mix, and keep moist until new roots form.
You can take wintergreen leaves and use them for tea anytime during the growing season. Although wintergreen plants are evergreen, the leaves turn reddish during winter months and contain less of the volatile oils that make a good (sweet and sometimes bitter) tea during this time. Harvest wintergreen berries as soon as they are fully red in the late fall. Berries remain viable on the plants throughout winter but become somewhat desiccated as the winter wears on.
Growing Wintergreen Plants From Seeds
Stratification—a period of cold dormancy that triggers germination—is necessary to grow wintergreen plants from seed. To grow seeds after stratification, take these steps:
- Place some seeds in a plastic bag filled with peat moss for 12 weeks before the last frost.
- After the cold treatment, move the seeds to a bright spot.
- Press them into a mix of potting soil and peat.
- Transplant outdoors after two sets of leaves form.
Potting and Repotting Wintergreen Plants
Grow your potted wintergreen plant in a mix of peat and sand, which will mimic the drainage and acidity the plants prefer. When you see roots coming from the drainage hole of the container, it's time to repot.
Common Pests and Diseases
The volatile oils of winterberry deter most insect pests. Poorly draining soils can lead to root rot or mildew. Aphids may present an occasional problem in the spring but are easy enough to blast away with a jet of water.