Monday, 1 February 2016

Wintergreen foraging through the snow

It was the day before February.

Cabin fever setting in for real now. Not that it's been a harsh winter, but .. well, we still get crazy. So what to do when there's a thaw for a day? Why go to the beach of course!

"Cote Jaune", Calumet Island, on a narrow channel of the mighty Ottawa river. Across the way is Mansfield, Quebec.

This is my hunting ground for wintergreen. Well actually, it's listed as 'false wintergreen', Gaultheria procumbens, in my field guide, Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada (a book I heartily recommend), to differentiate it from the European wintergreen Pyrola spp. Not that it matters, I'm just trying to be more specific with these things.

I only just discovered wintergreen for the first time this past autumn, there near the beach under the pines. We spotted just few of the tiny red berries and shiny green leathery leaves trailing along in the open area first, then realized that yonder, away from the park where the undergrowth was less trampled there were vast carpets of the stuff. Since that first day I've seen it again where there are pines with good light underneath, usually twining amongst another creeper that also has leathery shiny green leaves. And no, I don't know what the other one is.

And that's where wildcrafting gets finicky sometimes. Not always; most of the plants I forage for don't have as many look-alikes as 'they' like to warn you about. I mean honestly, I've seen warnings about confusing giant hog weed with yarrow and to my eye the two plants are so easily distinguishable that's very unlikely anyone could confuse them .. but I suppose since giant hog-weed can kill ya (or at least make you wish you were dead what with the oozing blisters and all) the warnings are a good idea.

Now I don't recommend my method of sorting out whether I have wintergreen or that other plant, okay? That first day I didn't have my field guide with me (I never do), just a vague idea that I might be looking at wintergreen. So initially, I picked a leaf from where we found it growing alone, rubbed and sniffed and yes, it smelled like wintergreen. Then I tasted it, yep, wintergreen. Then when we found the area carpeted with it intertwined with the other, I wasn't quite sure if I was seeing two forms of the same plant, they are that similar. On some, the leaves are smaller and grow along the stem, alternately. On others, there are whorls of 3 or 4 leaves at the end of a stem (that's your wintergreen). So of course I tasted some of each to be sure. Because that's how I roll. (But you shouldn't. Or if you do, don't blame me if you get into trouble.) That "other plant" tastes nothing like wintergreen, it's bitter. It might be good medicine, might not be. I'll let you know when I find out what it is. (**see footnote)

Let me tell you, I've grown to love wintergreen. It's a friendly, soothing little plant. Nibbling it out there under the pines is a treat - well, if you don't mind the texture which is somewhere between thick sharp paper and leather. It's not as biting a taste as mint but it's easily as refreshing. I've found it to be of great value in a mouthwash, soothing and long lasting. If you've ever heated your house with wood, you know how dry dry dry the air can get. You can keep refilling that pot on the stove, open the windows, drink gallons of tea and still, dry mouth and a scratchy throat are an occasional fact of life. Wintergreen gargles are great for that, and when I had a 3 day virus that was almost as painful as strep, it was great for that too.

So in the last couple of weeks I was getting a little panicky at how low my supply was getting. Since I only know of two places (so far) that I can (for sure) find it under the snow, and the beach meant the longest drive (and boy did we need an outing) we chose to come to this spot on the island. Thing is, I seriously under-estimated the amount of snow there would be. I also thought with the warm temperatures the snow would be wetter than it was. So instead of snowshoes I wore rubber boots, ha! I sure was glad I wore 2 pairs of socks. When I stuck to the packed down snow of the skidoo trails I was fine, but of course I couldn't stick to them, that's not where the wintergreen was.

Win-ter-greeeen, where are youuuu? Under 2 ft of snow, that's where it is. 

See that basket in my hand? It's not for collecting, for that I have a bag across my shoulders. The basket was for digging through the snow, and it worked great. If I'd had old fashioned snow shoes, I would have used one of them for the digging out part. (If I had on my new-fangled snow shoes, I wouldn't have ended up with snow in my boots).

How to choose where to start digging? Instinct? Good guess work? That inner sense that wildcrafters call being able to 'hear' the plants? It was option #3 that worked best.

Paul (my husband, videographer and all around good guy) came along after I'd dug through about a foot and a half of snow, in time to film this not terribly informative but rather amusing bit:

Most of what you're seeing there is the look-alike, you'd have to pause at the very beginning to see the actual wintergreen. I include this for its comedic value and so you can see my snow scooping technique. (I love how at the end I'm exclaiming "wow, WOW!" as I brush the snow away and find a trove of wintergreen and he's panning off into the distance...)

Here you go, a decent shot of wintergreen and its look-alike. Wintergreen is larger, with 3 or 4 leaves in whorls. The "other stuff" is rather like periwinkle, don't you think?

To be sure I didn't get a whole lot for my efforts but that wasn't the goal anyway. I just wanted to be out there with some living things more than anything. This amount will tide us over just fine for a while; I only use 3 or 4 leaves in a batch of mouthwash (along with other things) and steep for 4 hours or more. I'd rather steep something for longer than use more of it.

Note the reddish hue, that's another indication you have wintergreen rather than "that other plant". Note also the nifty wicker plate. If you find some of these at a dollar store or garage sale, BUY THEM. They're invaluable for drying small batches. I dried the wintergreen near (but not too near) the woodstove overnight.

Here is a more informative video from another wildcrafter, Tim Goodblood. This guy knows his stuff.

And here, if you like classical music and winter scenes, is the other video Paul shot as he waited for me to come back to the car.

** One of my pet peeves is this notion that we have taste buds for bitter so that we can detect poison. That's a dangerous fallacy. Not only are there LOTS of highly toxic plants that aren't bitter, many of our best medicines are quite bitter indeed.


  1. What's the music on de Paul's video? Love it.

    1. That was CBC radio. Mozart for sure, we *think* it's Piano Concerto #21.