The Wintergreen Family

The Wintergreen Family

The wintergreen family (Gaultheria spp.) is a family of evergreen shrubs and woody groundcovers native mainly to northern and mountainous regions of North America.

Oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate) is produced in the leaves and twigs of Gaultheria species and in the past was often distilled from the twigs of the American Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).  Today the compound is more commonly synthesized.

The berries of the wintergreen family are edible, but most are too bland and insipid for human tastes. The most commonly eaten wintergreen family berries are those of the salal (Gaultheria shallon), which is native to the Pacific Northwest and was a staple food of the native tribes. Today it is eaten fresh or used to make jams, jellies, and other products. Many native tribes also used shrubs from the Wintergreen family medicinally.

Both the berries and the leaves are popular food sources for many wildlife species. Many Gaultheria species have berries that persist into winter, providing an important winter food source. Wildlife attracted by wintergreen species include whitetail deer, wild turkey, grouse, pheasant, gray squirrel, and black bear.

Most species are extremely cold hardy and adapt to a range of conditions, though they prefer shade or partial shade.

Native wintergreen species include:

  • Creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula)
  • Alpine Wintergreen (Gaultheria humifusa)
  • Western teaberry (Gaultheria ovatifolia)
  • American Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
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