Friday, March 17, 2006
It was unseasonably warm last weekend and I thought I might find one of the snakes St.Patrick drove out of Ireland. I didn't — the earliest I've seen snakes in the past has been the last week of March — so I went to the Greenough Land and chose an evergreen with green in its name.
Name: Wintergreen is Gaultheria procumbens. It is a member of the heath family and is native to the northeastern US. It is also known as Teaberry and Checkerberry. Wintergreen is one of those troublesome common names since it is also used sometimes for the "spotted" Pipsissewa — which happens to be striped and doesn't need another identity crisis.
When and where seen: If you enter the Greenough Land from Brook Street near the junction of Maple Street, you will find lots of wintergreen on both sides of the path. All the berries were gone, but I recently found some with berries in the Conant Land.
Identification: Wintergreen is an evergreen woody-stemmed creeping plant that gets about six inches tall. The leaves are more or less oval, slightly toothed, and like other members of the heath family have a waxy coating on the upper surface to prevent desiccation. This gives them a shiny appearance. The flowers are small, white, nodding and bell-shaped, like a blueberry flower. The fruit is bright red and is usually covered by the leaves. You can easily identify the plant without the fruit because the leaves contain oil of wintergreen, as does the fruit. If you crush the leaves in your fingers, you get the tell-tale smell, and those who like the taste can chew the leaves or brew them into a tea. A full-flavored tea requires equal parts of leaves and boiling water, and then it still needs to steep for a day or more.
References: Donald W. Stokes, A Guide to Nature in Winter; Peter Alden and Brian Cassie, Audubon Field Guide to New England.
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© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito