If the word wintergreen sounds like a made-up marketing term used to sell more gum and mints, think again. The wintergreen plant is a real species possessing its own unique sweet-spicy flavor distinct from mint or cinnamon. Although artificial flavorings have largely replaced wintergreen as a commercial additive to foods, wintergreen plants still grow abundantly in North America, and make a showy ground cover in shady gardens. The bright red berries of wintergreen plants are a welcome sight in the winter months when there's little to look at in the landscape.
- Botanical Name: Gaultheria procumbens
- Common Names: Boxberry, Deerberry, Ground Berry, Spiceberry, Wintergreen
- Plant Type: Evergreen ground cover
- Mature Size: Seven inches
- Sun Exposure: Partial shade
- Soil Type: Low nutrient and good drainage
- Soil pH: Slightly to very acidic; 4.5 to 6.5
- Bloom Time: July and August
- Flower Color: White or pale pink
- Hardiness Zones: USDA growing zones 3 to 7
- Native Area: Eastern North America from Georgia to Newfoundland
Caring for Wintergreen Plants
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 a nutrient-rich soil, but they do appreciate good drainage.
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 help 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.
Potting and Repotting
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.
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.
Toxicity of Wintergreen Plants
The berries of wintergreen plants are edible for people and animals, and make good forage for deer, birds, rodents, and bears. Wintergreen plant leaves are used in herbal tea. Wintergreen essential oil is much more concentrated, and is not safe to ingest in any amount.
You can take wintergreen leaves 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 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.
Being Grown in Containers
The glossy green foliage and red berries of wintergreen plants make a festive holiday gift plant. 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.
Growing From Seeds
Stratification is necessary to grow wintergreen plants from seed. That refers to a period of cold dormancy that triggers germination. Place some seeds in a plastic bag filled with peat moss for 12 weeks before last frost. After the cold treatment, move the seeds to a bright spot and press them into a mix of potting soil and peat. Transplant outdoors after two sets of leaves form.
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.
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.