Thursday, November 15, 2007

Plant ID: Gaultheria procumbens

Walking in the Flower District the other day preparing for an event I was impressed to find many vendors selling Gaultheria procumbens, commonly called checkerberry or wintergreen. Wintergreen is a North American native, and it is very important to try and incorporate as many native species into our gardens as possible. These plants are used to the climate here in the northeast and you do not have to fear them becoming invasive as some introduced species from other continents may become over time. Wintergreen is cold hardy in USDA Zones 4-8. It prefers full sun but can tolerate part shade. This plant does best in rich organic soil, so do not hesitate to incorporate a lot of compost when planting. As with many perennials, younger plants are more resilient and can often adapt more quickly to their new environment compared to much larger, older specimens. Last summer I was able to get to know wintergreen first-hand visiting and working in a number of gardens and sanctuaries up north in Massachusetts and in it's natural environment these plants perform best in a soil that is kept moist on a regular basis. Individual plants of Gaultheria procumbens will only get to about 6" tall, but over time they can spread up to 3' wide, so they make for a tremendous groundcover. Pale pink flowers in summer will produce these red, waxy berries that will persist through the winter. In addition the foliage will turn an attractive red in fall. As the name might suggest, this is the plant from which wintergreen oil is derived. It is the berries that are processed to make this essential oil that is used as a liniment for muscle and joint problems. Next time you see this plant, or better yet when you go to purchase one for your own garden, crush one of the leaves in your fingers and the scent I'm sure will raise your eyebrows and enlighten your senses.

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