Appropriately called wintergreen because of its persistent, evergreen leaves, the small red berries of the shrub Gaultheria procumbens taste of minty wintergreen, too. Also called eastern teaberry and checkerberry, it indeed supplies the flavor for gums and oils tasting of wintergreen. This semi-woody plant grows low to the ground, forming mats of foliage.
Native to eastern North America, wintergreen naturally dwells in mixed woodlands, road banks, old pastures, coastal heathlands, montane heath bogs and fens in acidic, sandy soils. The native range extends from Canada's Labrador westward to southern Manitoba and then nearly all areas east of the Mississippi River in the United States, except for Florida.
Growing 4 to 6 inches tall with a spread of 3 to 4 feet, the dark green leaves have a glossy finish. Crush a leathery leaf and the scent of wintergreen permeates. Although the small white urn-shaped flowers appear in summer, they do not attract much visual attention; however, the ensuing small scarlet red berries contrast with the dark green foliage and ripen in early autumn, usually persisting through the winter.
Wintergreen grows best in a moist, peaty soil that is acidic (pH 5.5 to 7.0) and never floods. Choose a partially shaded garden location, where it receives no more than two to five hours of direct sun through the shifting shade from trees or shrubs above. If the soil remains consistently moist, wintergreen plants handle as much as five to seven hours of direct sunshine daily in the growing season. This species successfully grows for years in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 8.
Excellent in woodland settings, wintergreen spreads as ground cover on the forest floor or upon a moist, shaded hillside. Rock gardens with moist soils that also support the growth of heath and heathers make great habitats for wintergreen. Although ingesting leaves or stems of wintergreen leads to a stomach ache, the red berries are fully edible. Their mealy texture and minty flavor help freshen breath or season desserts like ice cream, cakes or sweet icings.
Other plant species carry the common name "wintergreen". Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), round-leaf wintergreen (Pyrola rotundifolia), wintergreen barberry (Berberis julianae) and Wintergreen Korean boxwood (Buxus sinica "Wintergreen") comprise a small list of garden plants with similar names but different taxonomic classifications.