American Wintergreen – Gaultheria Procumbens: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Other Snowberry of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, wini’sibugons’  meaning “dirty leaf”, American wintergreen is often called Eastern tea berry now. It’s edible and medicinal, but you have to mind the amount you use because the oil is toxic if overdosed. Similar to Aspirin, just a tsp of pure wintergreen oil is the equivalent of 21 and a half adult aspirins.

American wintergreen (gaultheria procumbens) is common around damp coniferous or mixed woods and shaded mossy banks. I found my first patch along a dirt road in poor sandy soils, mixed in with some low growing aster. Creeping snowberry (gaultheria hispidula) is also listed in Haliburton Flora as fairly common.

American Wintergreen - Gaultheria Procumbens
American Wintergreen – Gaultheria Procumbens

Edible Uses of American Wintergreen

Eastern tea berry needs to be used carefully: The oil is toxic unless in scant amounts. 1 Drop of wintergreen essential oil is equivalent to 1 baby aspirin. 1 Tsp is equivalent to 21.5 adult aspirins. It doesn’t take much more than that to get into serious trouble. There are recorded deaths from misuse. Make sure to thoroughly read the Warnings part of this blog.

The fresh, pale green leaves and berries can be steeped for tea, but do not boil the leaves. You can let it steep for a day, strain, then reheat the tea before serving. Some folks eat a small amount of the leaves raw, others prefer to chew them and spit them out.

The fruits are best after a frost and can be eaten raw or used in baking or for flavoring. They can be dried like raisins.

It is best used for flavoring. An alcohol extract is recommended rather than pure oil. Wintergreen was an early ingredient in commercial sarsaparillas. Berries and/or leaves can be steeped in beer or liquors. Infuse the liquor for a few weeks before straining. Throughout the winter you can add a drop or a few to your hot cocoa. It’s up there with eggnog and Bailey’s.

Medicinal Uses of American Wintergreen

American wintergreen is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Immune
  • Integumentary
  • Muscular
  • Skeletal

Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Anodyne, Anti-inflammatory, Antispasmodic, Astringent, Carminative, Diuretic, Emmenagogue and Stimulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes wintergreen oil in low concentrations in liniments and salves for pain relief for aching joints and muscles, headaches, rheumatism, sciatica, etc. It’s usually combined with other herbs and always diluted in a carrier substance. Same as with ingesting it, caution is needed. There’s at least one recorded death from using too much pain relief cream. Methyl salicylate is readily absorbed through the skin.

There have been poisonings by “herbalists” who were untrained and dumped unknown amounts of the oil into their concoctions.

The oil, “Oil of Gaultheria”, is obtained by fermenting the leaves and steam distillation. It has methyl salicylate, a close match to acetylsalicylic acid which makes Aspirin, which is toxic in large doses and contradicts some medications. Most over-the-counter deep heating creams contain methyl salicylate. Sources of similar ethers include yellow birch and willow.

Green Pharmacy has wintergreen listed for a multitude of ailments: amenorrhea, backache, corns, earache, hangover, sciatica, ear ache, and sore throat. There is also evidence of microbial action.

American Wintergreen - Gaultheria Procumbens
American Wintergreen – Gaultheria Procumbens

Alternative Uses of Eastern Teaberry

The oil has been used for flavoring (ex. toothpaste) but synthetic flavoring has mostly taken over. An alcohol extract can be used for everything from toothpaste to ice cream the same way it’d be used for hot cocoa or cookies. Just a tiny amount needed. But keep the bottle away from children and pets.

The cut leaf can be rubbed into an aching tooth and spat out.

Growing Gaultheria Procumbens

It’s a beautiful evergreen with drooping white flowers in mid summer and bright red berries by winter. And it’s not too fussy. The biggest patch I’ve found is at the peak of a shady dirt road, growing with asters which mostly cover it in the summer. The ones exposed to the sun flower and fruit. I watched a bumble bee pollinating the flowers this summer.

I bought my plants from a native plant nursery. And I hope to spread it around all my paths and driveway, along with partridgeberry.


It’s not recommended for children.

It’s not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Don’t use this plant if allergic to aspirin.

According to “One teaspoon (5 mL) of wintergreen oil is equivalent to approximately aspirin 7 g or 21.5 (325 mg) adult aspirin tablets.”

Also avoid if you’re on anticoagulant medication or about to have a major surgery or dental work. Basically, if you’re avoiding Aspirin avoid wintergreen too.

Consume in moderation. The berries and leaves contain methyl salicylate which is toxic in concentrated doses. Like aspirin, this ether can cause stomach upset.

Use caution when applying liniment or oils externally, as methyl salicylate is quickly absorbed through skin. Avoid getting it in your eyes or on other mucous membranes. Don’t use it on ulcers or open wounds.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

A Modern Herbal (Volume 2, I-Z and Indexes)

Native Plants, Native Healing: Traditional Muskagee Way

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Eating Wild in Eastern Canada: A Guide to Foraging the Forests, Fields, and Shorelines

The Good Living Guide to Natural and Herbal Remedies: Simple Salves, Teas, Tinctures, and More

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

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