WINTERGREEN (Gaultheria procumbens – Ericaceae)

Wintergreen belongs to a genus of 200 species of evergreen flowering shrubs. It originates from the northern United States and Canada, and grows to about 30 cm (12 in) in height. Its habitat can be mountainous where it is often found protected by other trees and taller shrubs, or it also grows on sandy deserted plains. It has large, oval, glossy and toothed leaves, and drooping white or pink bell-shaped flowers, followed by bright red globose berries with a beautifully pronounced aroma.

In America, wintergreen is also known as the partridge berry and checkerberry, and has been used for centuries by the Indians for its remarkable therapeutic properties. They masticated the leaves when they had pain or fever, prepared refreshing drinks with them, and fed the berries to food animals such as poultry, partridge and deer. The leaves were classified in the American pharmacopoeia until recently, but now only the essential oil is mentioned. One early nineteenth-century remedy using wintergreen, called the Swain Panacea, was reputed to cure all sorts of problems. Earlier this century, a French pharmacist made his reputation and fortune by selling a wintergreen cure for all chronic forms of joint and muscle pains.


Description: The leaves have to be macerated for up to 24 hours in hot water in order to produce the fermentation which releases the essentials from which the oil is distilled. Wintergreen oil is colourless but when older becomes a reddish brown and should not be used.

The principal constituents: 90 – 95 per cent methyl salicylate, ketone, secondary alcohol, and an ester, the latter two responsible for the characteristic smell – aromatic, reminiscent of camphor, with a note of vanillin and baume de Perou.

Dangers: Unfortunately, commercial wintergreen oils are often made with an artificial base such as salicylic acid, or from distilling the bark of Betula lenta, a species of birch. Do obtain the oil from a reputable source otherwise results can be very disappointing.


In illness
Wintergreen oil is antiseptic, a diuretic, stimulant, emmenagogue and anti-rheu¬matic. It is for the latter problem that it is most famous, and most deserves it reputation, as it is very useful in many rheumatic conditions, for gout, and for stiffness due to old age. It also revitalizes and gives energy following muscular pains, particularly good for athletes for instance. The leaves themselves were once warmed and pulped to make poultices for muscular and rheumatic swellings (and boils).

For any of the above conditions, take a hot bath and add 6 drops of the oil. After the bath, rub the affected parts with an oil made from 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil and 5 drops wintergreen.

In beauty
Wintergreen can be successful in treating cellulite used in conjunction with other essential oils.

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