What more hopeful way to go into winter than with a plant named wintergreen? The word conjures up an image of lush greenery against lily white snow.
If the word wintergreen brings to mind, instead, a refreshing aroma or flavor - yes - that's the same plant. The oil has flavored teas and beers, and the leaves provide a refreshing nibble. The plant's berries, known as teaberries, also provide a nibble and flavoring in a chewing gum of that name. Wintergreen also has been called checkerberry and partridgeberry.
More than just a flavoring, oil of wintergreen has soothed fevers and eased the pain of arthritis and rheumatism. The active ingredient is closely related to aspirin.
Wintergreen lives up to its name, helping keep a snowbare winter from looking like a wasteland of gray and brown, or peeking through the snow to break the white monotony of a snowy winter. The plant grows only about 6 inches high, creeping along the ground by means of underground stems. New leaves are yellowish green, soon turning glossy green, then take on a bronze tinge through winter, the colder the weather, the bronzer the color.
The leaves are only part of the display. All summer, they are accompanied by solitary, pinkish white flowers. And then red berries, ripening in late summer, add to the show and carry it on through fall and winter.
Together, these qualities recommend wintergreen as an evergreen ground-cover plant. Where it's native - over much of the eastern half of the country - the plant grows in moist, acidic soils in the shade of evergreens. Why not do the same in the garden, planting wintergreen beneath such shrubs as rhododendrons and mountain laurels, or beneath a hedge of hemlocks? Wintergreen will tolerate deep shade at some expense to growth and fruiting, and sun, if the soil stays sufficiently moist.
Pay careful attention to the soil before you plant wintergreen. Add plenty of acidic peat moss or well-ripened compost, as well as sulfur if the pH still goes above about 5.5. Use little or no fertilizer, though, because fertilizer can damage the plant's fine roots, and because the plant just does not need it. With soil prepared, plant seeds or potted plants, the latter of which are available through many mail order nurseries, including Forest Farm (www.forestfarm.com), Tripple brook Farm (www.tripplebrookfarm.com), and Gardens of the Blue Ridge (www.gardensoftheblueridge.com).