When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed to relieve pain.
A while ago I noticed a familiar looking plant at the edge of the forest. When I picked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers I smelled that unmistakable wintergreen fragrance and knew it was teaberry. Teaberry won’t be found in deep shade where clubmosses grow; they usually grow at the edge of forests, and only those plants getting the most sun will have berries.
Teaberry is a ground hugger that will usually form large colonies using long underground stems (rhizomes). The plant also reproduces by seeds that birds help scatter. Though it seems to have a groundcover habit it is actually classified as a small shrub. The leaves are deep green, oval, very shiny, leathery and relatively thick. The red berries appear after small white, bell shaped flowers in summer but may often still be found on the plant the following spring. They are quite small so you have to have good eyesight to find them. The plant is a true evergreen, which is why it is called wintergreen. Many animals, from foxes to chipmunks and birds including grouse and pheasant rely on the berries to help them get through the winter. Wintergreen oil has been used medicinally for centuries, and the leaves make an excellent, soothing tea. Plants are usually found at the edge of evergreen forests growing in acidic, well drained, moist soil. There is a variety available commercially called Gaultheria procumbens “Very Berry” that can be successfully grown in a pot and brought indoors in winter.
If you find what you think might be teaberry plants, do not eat the berries unless the crushed leaves smell heavily of oil of wintergreen. The fragrance of the oil is unmistakable and you should recognize it immediately because it is used in toothpaste, mouthwash, pain relievers, etc. If you search for plants but don’t find any, a good substitute until you do is Clark’s Teaberry Gum, which tastes just like wild tea berry, and is something I chewed a lot of as a boy.
One final note: Oil of wintergreen is astringent and can be irritating to some. If you are allergic to aspirin you should not eat the berries, leaves or any teas or other preparations made from this plant because it contains compounds very similar to those found in aspirin.