Wintergreen was the first wild plant I tasted as a child growing up in southern Maine. The flood of mint in my mouth as I chewed that first leaf was so vivid that it burned its way into my permanent memory bank, and even now I can recall the day clearly.
Back then, I knew it as teaberry, because that’s what my best friend’s mom called it when she took us out to pick some. Since then I’ve heard it called deerberry, checkerberry, wintermint, boxberry, mountain tea, spicy wintergreen, and a whole list of other colorful colloquialisms. For simplicity’s sake, I just stick to wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).
This little plant is a gift of big flavor from the Maine landscape. It’s easy to find, easy to identify and, as an evergreen, we can collect it even now, in the dead of winter.
If you’ve spent any time outdoors in Maine, it’s almost a sure thing you’ve walked by a patch of Wintergreen somewhere along your way. It’s easy to spot new patches, even while I’m just driving through a new area, because it often blankets the uphill sides of the ditches that line roads, and the way the sun shines off the glossy leaves always catches my eye.
While I don’t promote foraging on roadsides, keeping an eye out for these patches can speed up the scouting process and point you toward a healthy patch that extends back away from the road. It’s one of our most common native groundcover plants, often forming gleaming, green (or blushing red in winter) carpets on the forest floor, especially in sunny openings and edges.
It’s common in many of Maine’s forest types as long as the soil is slightly acidic. The patch that I first picked from was on a sunny corner where a mixed-wood forest met a hayfield, and that patch is still there and expanding, even with people collecting from it every year.
In places where wintergreen is thriving and there’s a lush carpet and not just a few sparse plants, it’s very tolerant of gathering as long as you’re only taking berries or a leaf from each plant, and not stripping them bare or pulling up their roots. Once you find yourself a nice dense patch that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals, all you need is a few handfuls of leaves every now and then to keep you in wintergreen flavor for years.
That spicy, mint flavor comes from a compound called methyl salicylate, which is similar to aspirin and used externally in low doses for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. This is usually administered topically in the form of oils, ointments, and balms.
These topical remedies usually contain wintergreen essential oil, which is made by steam distillation of huge amounts of plant matter. This oil should never be ingested, as methyl salicylate is toxic at this concentrated dose.
Using a few handfuls of fresh leaves at home for things like teas, extracts and infusions, however, is perfectly safe. I do love the essential oil included in a balm for my achy joints, I just make sure to keep the oil in the medicine cabinet and out of the kitchen.
There are lots of ways to enjoy wintergreen in the kitchen, and they almost all begin the same way: infusion or extraction. Wintergreen leaves are pretty leathery — not something you’d want to chew on beyond a refreshing trail nibble — and even then I usually spit out the wad of fiber once the flavor fades.
Luckily, the flavor gives itself up readily to most liquids like water, cream and alcohol. These are the trifecta of liquids for all of my favorite wintergreen treats and the basic method is the same for all of them.
For one pint of wintergreen extract, fill a pint jar three-quarters full with torn or chopped leaves and fill to the top with either vodka, whiskey or bourbon. Put this on a dark shelf where you’ll remember to shake it every few days, and start tasting it after four weeks.
Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain the leaves, and it’ll store indefinitely. I love to use this in place of vanilla extract in baked goods, and a teaspoon in a cocktail goes a long way.
A simple syrup can be made by combining equal parts water, sugar and wintergreen and simmering and stirring just until the sugar is fully dissolved. This sweet, spicy syrup can be splashed into all kinds of beverages and I especially love it in the filling of a peppermint patty, in glazes for cookies and cakes, and as the sweetener for summertime mint popsicles.
Lastly, if like me you’re a sucker for mint chocolate ice cream, simmering your cream, milk and sugar with torn wintergreen leaves will have you wondering where wintergreen has been all your life. And it’s probably been right there, so try some!