Notable Natives: American Wintergreen

Notable Natives: American Wintergreen

One of the plants that’s easiest to find in the garden center in the winter is Gautheria procumbens, aka eastern teaberry, checkerberry, or American wintergreen. It’s available around Christmas because it’s sold as a holiday plant that many use in window boxes or porch pots. The red berries are bright and the foliage is a colorful mix of green and purple. Yet this is a plant that should have our interest all year, since it is a lovely evergreen plant for shade.

Here is an example of a living porch pot our custom department created. The wintergreen, on the left, has the perfect foliage to contrast with the yellow foliage of the Osmanthus and false cypress. And the red berries are bright. All of the plants in this pot can be transplanted into the landscape in March or April.

Wintergreen is a creeping, evergreen ground cover that’s in the heath family. You can see wintergreen growing wild in many woods and conservation lands on Cape Cod. This plant is native to the eastern North America, and the oil from the leaves has been used for traditional medicinals and as flavoring for candies, gum and toothpaste.

Here is a large stand of wintergreen growing in Cotuit. It’s a ground cover that coexists with other native plants because it doesn’t grow so thickly that it crowds other things out. As a result, it’s the perfect perennial for shade gardens to use as the “understory” for shrubs and other perennials. It’s also a good plant for areas where you “leave the leaves.”

You will notice that the wintergreen sold in the garden center has berries that are far larger than the fruit of plants in the wild. This is because the growers get these holiday plant pumped up with the perfect growing conditions. Once placed in your garden, the berries will be about half the size. But not to worry…the fruit of this plant is important to many species of wildlife, and they don’t care if the berries are large or not.

These plants can either be planted into containers for the winter, or directly into the ground in your gardens.

If you purchase wintergreen at this time of year, either grow it in your pots and boxes for the winter, or plant it directly into the ground. Since our soils aren’t usually frozen until after the New Year on Cape Cod, you can plant these in shade gardens now.

This is how a Christmas-planted wintergreen plant has spread in my garden. I bought it in December four years ago and planted in a shady spot, where it spread nicely every year. Gaultheria procumbens doesn’t spread quickly, and it won’t overtake other plants. It’s the perfectly polite native plant to add to your landscape.

Wintergreen flowers offer spring nectar for the bees that pollinate them. If you want to plant as a groundcover, space the plants you buy about twelve inches apart. In shade gardens they also look good planted in groups of 5 or seven, spaced ten inches apart, in front of or between ferns, hosta, or shrubs.

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