Winter Foraging: wintergreen

Another easy food to forage in winter, at least around here in the parts of the Eastern woodlands that are predominantly mixed forests, is the wintergreen plant. Wintergreen is a plant that grows primarily by forming colonies with massive connected underground roots that thrive in the woody duff.

For our purposes, harvesting the leaves and berries is relatively easy. The individual stems grow between 3 and 10 waxy, slightly tough leaves. The whole thing doesn’t grow more than a few inches off the ground. They can be chewed on, but they’re not particularly a food. Mostly, you can chew on them as a breath freshener, drink them dried as a tea, or process them further for extracts.

Gaultheria procumbens

The little red (sometimes pink) berries that grow off of these stems taste a bit of wintergreen and aren’t particularly sweet. My experience has been that generally you don’t find a lot in one place whether or not there are lots of stems, except where the plants can get a lot of sun. I’m hoping to encourage the plants already growing in the food forests were building to get an extra output of fruit.

It takes a lot of leaves to make some extract, but if you really want to you can loosely pack a glass vessel with leaves, fill the rest with a high proof alcohol, and wait a long time.

The leaves and berries have been used as a mild NSAID (non steroidal anti inflammatory drug). The effect isn’t particularly strong, but I have definitely enjoyed munching on lots of berries and a few leaves while hiking not that long after an ankle sprain.


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