Wintergreen is a shrub-like plant that grows up to six inches in height and bears foliage round the year. When the plant is young it bears pale or yellowish green elliptical leaves that are delicately jagged or toothed. However, the mature leaves are rubbery and lustrous. The surface of the mature leaves is dark green in color, while below they are lighter. Wintergreen bears bell-shaped white flowers during the months of July-August and these are followed by red fruits.
Judging by the number of medications they used, the North American Indians appeared to be mostly suffering from painful disorder of the joints or muscles or connective tissues or rheumatism. And one of the remedies for rheumatism they used widely was a tea prepared from the leaves of wintergreen herb. Interestingly, when the American nationalists boycotted the British tea during the American Revolution, they used the wintergreen tea as a substitute. Once acquainted with the properties of the wintergreen tea, the American settlers also used it to cure headache, muscle pains and colds. Later, in the 1800s American pharmacologists ascertained that the oil extracted from the wintergreen leaves had properties of aspirin and this clarified the herb's effectiveness in alleviating pains. These days, herbalists world over suggest the external application of wintergreen oil to alleviate excruciating swellings owing to injuries as well as to heal swellings and irritations of the joints and the muscles.
Earlier, wintergreen was also used to add essence to candies, cough drops as well as toothpastes. Incidentally, the practice still continues as many such products available in the market suggest the usage of wintergreen extracts even today. However, over the years, the herb has mostly been substituted by synthetic substances. Therefore, these days it is only animals like the deer and the partridge that thrive on the original evergreen herb as it serves as their staple food during the winter months.
Leaves, fruit, essential oil.
As a medicinal herb wintergreen has numerous functions. The herb is robustly anti-inflammatory, has anti-septic properties and is comforting to the digestive system. While wintergreen is an efficient medication to heal rheumatic and arthritic problems, the tea prepared with the herb helps in alleviating flatulence and colic. The oil extracted from wintergreen leaves is used as a cream or ointment and applied externally to get relief from pains and spasms. Wintergreen oil relaxes irritating, engorged or aching muscles, ligaments and body joints. It has also been found to be useful in curing neurological conditions like sciatica (an excruciating pain owing to pressure on a nerve in the lower part of the vertebrate column) as well as trigeminal neuralgia (pain distressing the facial nerve). Wintergreen leaf oil is also beneficial in healing cellulites, an infection caused by bacteria that leads to the swelling and irritation of the skin. It may be mentioned here that the Inuit of Labrador and many other native people consume the wintergreen berries uncooked, while they use the leaves of the herb to cure headaches, painful muscles as well as sore throats.
All over the world people use the wintergreen especially for its oil extract which contains large proportions of methyl salicylate. It may be noted here that methyl salicylate forms the base of the aspirin group of medicines and hence it is easy to understand why wintergreen is so effective in alleviating pains and inflammation in different body parts. This also explains why the herb is a useful medication in treating rheumatism.
Habitat and cultivation
Wintergreen grows best in a damp, but not marshy, humus rich soil in shadow or partial shade. The herb prefers moisture and flourishes in peat (an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter). The species also requires a lime-free soil and grows well even on arid soils when it has been well set up and can endure drought conditions to a large extent. Wintergreen thrives fine under gentle shades of deciduous (perennial plants that shed leaves once in a year) shrubs or evergreens (plants that retain their leaves throughout the year). Wintergreen is a cold-hardy plant that can withstand temperatures even as low as -35°C. When growing in favorable conditions, the wintergreen plants have the ability to become all-encompassing and spread to large areas. Over the years, herbal scientists have developed new varieties of the species that are mainly used for the decorative value. Among the different varieties of wintergreen, ‘Dart's Red Giant' especially bears large berries. Significantly, all parts of the plant are scented and one may smell the original odor of wintergreen when the leaves of the plants are crushed. All plants classified under this genus are generally dead set against honey fungus.
Before sowing, wintergreen seeds need cold stratification (storing of seeds at low temperatures under moist conditions in order to break dormancy) for some time. The procedure for sowing wintergreen seeds is as follows. Chill the seeds for four to ten weeks and then sow them on the surface of a lime-free (devoid of caustic) fertilizer in a shadowy portion of a conservatory or greenhouse. It is essential to always keep the compost wet. The seeds begin to germinate between one to two months at a moderate temperature of 20°C. However, if care is not taken, the sprouts may wither away owing to lack of adequate moisture and hence it is essential to water the saplings regularly and provide them with enough exposure to air. It is advisable to water the saplings with an infusion of garlic as this method is immensely beneficial in avoiding them from damping off.
Once the saplings are reasonably grown up or up to 25 mm tall, prick them out and plant them in individual pots or tubs. These saplings need to be grown in delicate shade in the greenhouse at least during their first winter. Once the fall is over, the saplings may be planted outside the greenhouse either during late spring or early summer. As the wintergreen saplings are vulnerable to spring frost, it is essential to provide them with additional protection during the first few years of their outdoor life. For the first few years, the leaves of the wintergreen plants remain very small. Half mature wood of wintergreen plants about the length of three to six cm long may be cut during July and August. The plants may be put in a frame and kept in shady conditions till they are able to endure the climatic conditions well. Normally, the wintergreen saplings form roots during late summer or spring. Root divisions of the plant is usually done almost all through the year, but gives the best results when done in spring just before the commencement of new growth. The process of root division is simple and can be done easily. Larger clusters of roots can be re-planted in their stable positions. However, it is always better to first plant the root clusters in pots or jugs in cold conditions and shift then only when the plants have rooted well. These clusters can be then planted in their permanent positions during the spring.
The oil extracted by distilling the wintergreen leaves is very volatile and contains as much as 99 per cent methyl salicylate, which forms the basis for all aspirins. The oil is rich in medicinal properties and besides methyl salicylate, contains 0.3 of a hydrocarbon, gaultherilene, an aldehyde or ketone, an unimportant alcohol as well as an ester (organic molecule produced by combining an acid with an alcohol). The alcohol as well as the ester provides the wintergreen oil its characteristic odor. It may be noted that the oil is not found in an unrefined manner in the plant leaves, but occurs as a non-scented glucoside (a glycoside derived from glucose). It is important to note that the leaves cannot be used for extracting oil soon after they are collected, but needs to be steeped in water for a period between 12 and 24 hours. This helps the oil in the leaves to develop by fermentation (chemical conversion of carbohydrates into alcohols or acids).
Wintergreen may be taken in both as a tincture and infusion. The herb can be dried or even used fresh to prepare the infusion or tincture. It is, however, difficult to prepare the wintergreen infusion. To prepare an infusion of the herb, one first needs to pour boiling water over the leaves and leave it in the water for a couple of days. Once this is done, the liquid needs to be reheated and then cooled according to necessity. The fruits or berries of the wintergreen plant may be consumed either fresh, dried or in the form of a jam. Normally, for relevant usage and to derive the best results, methyl salicylate is used in the proportion of 10 to 25 per cent in concentrations. While dried leaves may be taken in dosage of 0.5 to 1 gram, the liquid extract of the leaves can be consumed in the ratio of 1:1 with 25 per cent ethanol dose of 0.5 to 1.0 ml. The dosage for wintergreen infusion is same as the dry leaves proportion. It can be taken three times daily. The oil extracted from the wintergreen leaves is unstable or volatile and hence it is only recommended for external use.
Collection and harvesting
While the herb is collected during the fall, wintergreen fruits or berries are harvested both during the spring as well as fall. The leaves of wintergreen herb are gathered all through the year, but summer is the best time. Leaves of the herb are dried in the shade.