Pipsissewa – Chimaphila Umbellata: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Bitter Wintergreen of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, ga’gige’bug meaning “everlasting leaf” for its evergreen-ness, “pipsissewa” is a Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi name meaning “It-breaks-into-small-pieces”. It’s one of my favorite edible and medicinal plants to observe blooming in the wild. The delicate umbrella like flowers are unique here.

Pipsissewa (chimaphila umbellata) is uncommon here, and may be found in sparsely wooded, usually rocky areas. I typically find it alongside dirt roads and old bush roads. It’s one of our few little evergreens, and most of its folk names reflect that: bitter wintergreen, noble-pine, live-in-winter, loving winter, etc.

Pipsissewa - Chimaphila Umbellata
Pipsissewa – Chimaphila Umbellata
Pipsissewa - Chimaphila Umbellata
Pipsissewa – Chimaphila Umbellata

Edible Uses of Pipsissewa

It’s mostly been used to flavour candy and soft drinks, especially as “natural flavouring” for root beer.

The leaves, stems and roots can be used for tea, but disturbing the stem and roots will harm this at risk plant. A few leaves off the top and the berries are edible as trail nibble, but they are tough and astringent. And be warned, the fresh plant can even burn skin and mucous membranes. A less at risk or risky plant with a similar vibe is wintergreen, and perhaps partridgeberry. Pipsissewa is probably better visually enjoyed than plucked at.

Medicinal Uses of Pipsissewa

Pipsissewa is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Alterative, Antimicrobial, Antiseptic, Astringent, Counterirritant, Diaphoretic and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage according to Planting The Future is that it’s used almost exclusively for UTIs now, as a mild urinary antiseptic when other treatments have failed. But due to it’s being at risk, they recommend substituting with the herbs uva-ursi, goldenrod, or gravel root. An uva ursi and marshmallow combination is a good substitution as well. And if you must, only carefully harvest the top 3rd of the plant.

Alternative Uses of Bitter Wintergreen

The umbrella like flowers are one of my favourites to photograph for macro flower photography!

Growing Chimaphila Umbellata

It feeds in part off fungi in the soil, bringing to mind plants like ghost pipe. Sadly, this is one reason it is hard to propagate, and stealing a plant from the woods will more than likely kill it, even if you take some of the soil.

It’s extremely at risk due to this difficulty growing it and the added stress of poaching. If you find it in the wild in my area, you are lucky! I only know of a few small patches. Make sure not to share the location online! For a similar look that is easy to grow, wintergreen and partridgeberry are candidates and they are also evergreen.


And the Usual Cautions:

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

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

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.

#ads in References

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

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

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

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

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

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1 thought on “Pipsissewa – Chimaphila Umbellata: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Bitter Wintergreen of Wild Plants”

  1. May we use your pictures of pipsissewa for an article we are doing in our newsletter, The Juniata Mennonite History Center Echoes? Thank you, Sarah Beth Spade, editor


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