Plants in the wintergreen family, not surprisingly, stay green throughout winter and some are quite rare in this area. This post is for the plant people among us, of the kind who feel their pulse quicken when they find a plant they’ve never seen before. And there’s a good chance that they’ve never seen this one called one flowered pyrola (Moneses uniflora) because it is quite rare; the two plants in this photo are the only examples that I’ve ever seen. This plant is also called one flowered wintergreen and single delight. It is found in dry, cool, undisturbed forests and was used by Native Americans as a cold remedy, and to reduce swelling and ease pain.
One flowered pyrola is quite small and easy to miss. These nodding flowers were probably about 4 inches high. The flowers are fragrant but don’t produce nectar and are thought to be pollinated by bumblebees. They are made up of 5 petals and 10 stamens surrounding a bright green style and ovary. Along with orchids, the seeds of this plant are among the smallest known. A single seed weighs about two millionths of a gram.
Because I wanted to do a post on only wintergreens I’ve saved the photos of one flowered pyrola since late June. It is the earliest of the wintergreens to flower here. The following plants are shown in the order of their blooming period.
After one flowered pyrola blooms in June shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) follows closely behind. Shinleaf is quite common in this area and can form large colonies. It seems to be more successful than some other wintergreens. Shinleaf and other plants in the wintergreen family contain compounds that are similar to aspirin and shinleaf was used by Native Americans as a poultice on injured shins and other parts of the body. That’s how the plant comes by its common name. Shinleaf leaves form a rosette at the base of the single, 4-5 inch tall flower stalk.
Shinleaf blossoms nod toward the forest floor so they are very hard to get a good photo of. This isn’t a very good one but it shows the different flower parts. Like one flowered pyrola, shinleaf blossoms have 5 petals and 10 stamens, but it tucks all of its stamens together up under the top 2 petals. Another difference is the long, “J” shaped style, which seems to be a perfect landing spot for insects trying to get at its pollen bearing anthers. The petals appear waxy and give the plant another common name of waxflower shinleaf.
Shinleaf seed pods hang onto the flower’s J shaped style as the seeds are forming.
Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has my favorite wintergreen foliage which in winter turns deep purple where the darker green is on the leaf. This plant is also rare here, though I’m finding more and more spots where 1 or 2 plants grow. In all I probably know of 10 or 12 widely scattered plants. It’s hard to tell from a photo but these plants are so well camouflaged that I have looked right at them many times and not seen them. The flowers stand out and help me locate them though, so I begin looking for them in mid-July just as shinleaf is ending its bloom period.
The flower of striped wintergreen is very similar to that of one flowered pyrola but its 5 petals are swept back, as if it had seen a strong wind. It also has 10 anthers but its style is very blunt. I’m hoping the small fly on the blossom is pollinating this plant. The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love).
My favorite wintergreen flowers are found on pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) because they seem to be the showiest and often have a blush of pink. This plant grows in large colonies and is easy to find because of its shiny green leaves that shine winter and summer and last up to 4 years. Like other wintergreens it likes dry, sandy, undisturbed soil in pine forests. Pipsissewa was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer.
Something I didn’t know was that both Pyrolas and Chimaphilas have a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and are partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like native orchids.
Once again pipsissewa displays the 5 petals, 10 anthers and large style that are so common among many wintergreens. I just noticed that the flower pictured is a bit of an over achiever and has 12 stamens, which shows how flowers sometimes vary from what we consider “the norm.” These flowers also wear a little pink skirt at the base of the style, which makes them even prettier. As with the previous wintergreens shown, these flowers are from 4-6 inches tall.
When I think of wintergreen I think of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) which looks nothing like the previous wintergreens, either in flower or leaf. This plant is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it medicinally.
American wintergreen was the first plant my grandmother taught me to identify. Because she had trouble getting up from a kneeling position she would have me crawl around and gather up handfuls of the bright red, minty berries, which we would then share. She always called them checkerberries, but nobody seems to know where that name or the several others it has originated. The berries pictured haven’t ripened yet, but you can tell that it’s going to be a good berry year. I’ve never seen so many on one sprig.
NOTE: These berries belong to the Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), also called false lily of the valley. That plant comes up everywhere and was mixed in with the American wintergreen. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention when I was taking the photo and, since I’ve never paid much attention to the unripe berries of American wintergreen, I was fooled. See how easy it is?
Thanks to the folks at the New England Wildflower Society for pointing this out, and for reading this blog so faithfully.
Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture. ~Michael Pollan
Thanks for stopping in.