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Wild Trail Foods Series : Wintergreen, Gaultheria, with Video

Winter is a great time to go skiing, snowshoe, or test the limits of your cold weather sleeping gear, but not such a great time to be a forager. The pickings are pretty slim in the winter months. Other than the occasional scraggly greens on the roadside, such as dandelion, cat's ear, or dock (and then usually at lower elevations), a forager has to endure five or six months of dreams of fresh greens and berries. Thankfully, wintergreen never fails to disappoint me when hiking the winter woods of Appalachia.
The Low Growing Wintergreen, with Edible Leaves and Berries


For several years I wandered around the woods from November to March, hopeful to find anything other than pine needles to feed my hunger for wild foods. Just to be clear; there is nothing wrong with pine needles. They rock. Not many other wild foods have so much vitamin C. It's just that pine dominates the woods near my house, so while I am completely appreciative of the towering, needled, scurvy-preventing evergreens, I get a little tired of them as my only wild plants for months on end.

So what is a weed eater to do in the winter? Other than staring at plant identification books for hours on end, we can go in search of the elusive winter edible. One such edible is the tea berry. Also called wintergreen or creeping wintergreen, this wild edible is about as under appreciated as the pine tree.
Wintergreen, or Gaultheria procumbens, has tasty leaves that can be dried and crushed in a tea. The Colonists used the leaves as a tea substitute during the British taxation of black Indian tea in the 1700's. The berries, little red pearls of minty goodness with the mildest hint of sweetness, are excellent as a trail nibble. The plant also has medicinal benefits for the aching hiker, containing methyl salicylate, a relative to aspirin. Native Americans used the plant as a treatment for aches and pains. The plant can be used as a tisane (tea), tincture, or poultice.

Gaultheria is prolific along many trails from the southeastern U.S. and north to New England. The procumbens species is found in the eastern U.S., although other species is found all over North America.


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