Pictured here is a little wildflower that has been sitting out in the cold all winter, holding fast to its tiny red berries. As the plant’s common name implies, the round to elliptical, shiny leaves of American winterberry stay green all winter. The cherry-red fruit persists as well.
Wintergreen is technically a low-growing shrub, although at 3 to 6 inches in height, that fact is easy to overlook. It spreads across the forest floor by rhizomes, and is common in hardwood and pine forests.
But let’s get down to the important part: can you eat these attractive little fruits? Sort of! It turns out that the fruit, leaves, and branches of wintergreen impart a nice, mint flavor (think Teaberry gum) when casually chewed. They can also be boiled to make tea. However, eating the leaves outright is not advised.
At one time, the aromatic “oil of wintergreen” was derived from this plant and used to make flavorings and medicines. Teas made from wintergreen were often used for general pain relief– that’s because a key component of the plant is actually an aspirin-like compound.
Flowering time for wintergreen is summer. The flowers are small, white, nodding, and resemble the flowers of other heaths, like blueberries. Click on any of the photos below for a closer view.