Checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens)

Common Name Latin Name Plant Family
Gaultheria procumbens

An essential oil is obtained from the leaves by steam distillation[2, 14, 57, 213]. In order to obtain the oil, the leaves need to be steeped for 12 – 24 hours in water[4]. The essential oil is used as a food flavouring, medicinally (the original source of Wintergreen oil used as a liniment for aching muscles) and in perfumery and toothpastes. In large doses it can be toxic[165, 244].

A good ground-cover plant for shady positions though it requires weeding for the first year or so[28, 31, 197]. Forming a dense tuft-like carpet, it roots as it spreads and should be spaced about 45cm apart each way[208].

  • Medicinal Use

    Checkerberry leaves were widely used by the native North American Indians in the treatment of aches and pains and to help breathing whilst hunting or carrying heavy loads[238]. An essential oil (known as ‘oil of wintergreen’) obtained from the leaves contains methyl salicylate, which is closely related to aspirin and is an effective anti-inflammatory[213]. This species was at one time a major source of methyl salicylate, though this is now mainly synthesized[238].

    The leaves, and the oil, are analgesic, anti-inflammatory, aromatic, astringent, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, stimulant and tonic[4, 21, 165]. An infusion of the leaves is used to relieve flatulence and colic[254]. The plant, especially in the form of the essential oil, is most useful when applied externally in the treatment of acute cases of rheumatism, sciatica, myalgia, sprains, neuralgia and catarrh[4, 238]. The oil is sometimes used in the treatment of cellulitis, a bacterial infection that causes the skin to become inflamed[254]. Some caution is advised, especially if the oil is used internally, since essential oil is toxic in excess, causing liver and kidney damage[4, 238]. It should not be prescribed for patients who are hypersensitive to salicylates (aspirin)[238].

    The leaves can be gathered at any time from spring to early autumn, they are dried for use in infusions or distilled to produce the oil[238].

  • Edible Use

    Fruit – raw or cooked[2, 3, 14, 95, 101]. Pleasant but insipid[11]. The fruit is not at all insipid, it has a very strong spicy taste of germolene, just like being in a hospital waiting room[K]. Best after a frost, the fruit hangs onto the plant until spring if it is not eaten by birds etc[62, K]. The fruits can also be used in pies, or made into jams etc[183]. The fruit is up to 15mm in diameter[200].

    Young leaves – raw[62, 102, 106]. A pleasant wayside nibble if used when very young[183]. Dry and powdery according to our taste buds[K].

    A very agreeable tea is made from the fresh leaves[3, 95, 183]. A stronger tea can be made by first fermenting the bright red leaves[183].

    ‘Oil of wintergreen’ can be distilled from this plant. It is used to flavour beer, sweets, chewing gum etc[183].

  • Cautionary Notes

    The pure distilled essential oil is toxic in large doses[222].

Cultivation & Habitat

The seed requires a period of cold stratification. Pre-chill for 4 – 10 weeks and then surface sow in a lime-free compost in a shady part of the greenhouse and keep the compost moist[78]. The seed usually germinates well, usually within 1 – 2 months at 20¡c, but the seedlings are liable to damp off. It is important to water them with care and to ensure that they get plenty of ventilation. Watering them with a garlic infusion can also help to prevent damping of[K]. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are about 25mm tall and grow them on in light shade in the greenhouse for at least their first winter[K]. Plant them out in late spring or early summer. The seedlings are susceptible to spring frosts so might need some protection for their first few years outdoors. The leaves remain very small for the first few years[11]. Cuttings of half-ripe wood 3 – 6cm long, July/August in a frame in a shady position. They form roots in late summer or spring[78]. A good percentage usually take. Division can be carried out at almost any time of the year, but works best in the spring just before new growth begins[K]. Very easy, larger clumps can be replanted direct into their permanent positions, though it is best to pot up smaller clumps and grow them on in a cold frame until they are rooting well. Plant them out in the spring.
Prefers a moist but not boggy humus rich soil in shade or semi-shade[11, 182]. A peat and moisture loving species, it requires a lime-free soil[11, 182]. Succeeds in dry soils once it is well established and tolerates considerable drought[208]. Grows well under the thin shade of deciduous shrubs or evergreens[4, 11]. A very cold-hardy plant, tolerating temperatures down to about -35¡c[160]. Plants can become invasive when growing in good conditions[182]. Some named forms have been developed for their ornamental value, ‘Dart’s Red Giant’ has specially large berries[182]. All parts of the plant are aromatic, the bruised leaves having the scent of wintergreen[245]. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus[200].
Eastern N. America. Introduced and established on one site in Britain, in Scotland.

Become ungovernable, break the chains of the matrix; grow and forage your own food and medicine.

*None of the information on this website qualifies as professional medical advice. Take only what resonates with your heart and use your own personal responsibility for what’s best for you. For more information [brackets] [000], see bibliography.