Urban Farm magazine in its January/February 2013 issue ran an article by Frank Hyman titled “Herbal Wintergreen” about the use of wintergreen for making tea. Not only does Gaultheria look wonderful at this time of year, it also can tantalize your taste buds.
Gaultheria procumbens is a native of eastern North America (and interestingly, it’s a member of the heath family of plants). According to Mr. Hyman, the common name in Quebec is la petite thé du bois or “little tea of the woods.” Don’t you love it! The article goes on to say that Native Americans used the leaves as a medicinal tea because of its anti-inflammatory characteristics.
It’s a small, low growing evergreen shrub that seldom grows taller than five inches. It likes woodland conditions, but fruits best in sunnier locations. The berry-like fruit is actually a dry capsule surrounded by fleshy calyx.
The best flavor is in the leaves. For the leaves to yield significant amounts of their essential oil, they need to be fermented for several days. Mr. Hyman says to pack leaves in a jar then fill with filtered water. Set the jar in a warm spot for approximately three days until it starts to bubble. “Pour off the tea water. Dilute it to taste, and heat it for refreshing wintergreen tea. You can also use it to flavor black tea and other drinks.” To make future teas, dry the leaves slowly in a convection oven or dehydrator. Because younger leaves offer the best flavor, shear the plants to encourage new growth.
I most recently saw some beautiful 4-inch and gallon containers of Gaultheria at The Garden Corner.