The Christmas Plant that Came In from the Cold

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Gaultheria procumbens ‘Big Berry’

Traditionally potted Christmas plants, such as poinsettias, Christmas cactus, and Christmas kalanchoes, have always been tropical or subtropical plants. In recent years, however, a plant from the Far North has taken its place in the Christmas displays: wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

In nature, wintergreen, a eastern North American native, is essentially a plant of the great boreal forest, found most abundantly in the coniferous woodlands of Canada, but also in mountainous regions as far south as Alabama. It name honors botanist and king’s physician of New France, Jean-François Gaulthier (1708-1756).

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Flowers

This low-growing ground cover shrub forms an evergreen carpet about 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) high, with shiny oval leaves, dark green in summer, but taking on purple tints in winter. In the spring, small, lightly fragrant, white bell-shaped flowers appear. They look rather like blueberry flowers and indeed, the two parents are in the Ericaceae (rhododendron family).

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Wintergreen as it goes into winter.

The round fruits that follow the blooms are bright red. They have a very unusual taste for a berry, not at all fruitlike, but rather minty. If you’ve ever tried wintergreen gum, it’s a taste you’ll recognize, as it was the original source of the oil that flavors the gum. (Today’s wintergreen gum generally uses artificial flavors.) Native peoples and early settlers also made tea from the fermented stems and leaves, leading to G. procumbens other common name, teaberry. (It has many other common names too: see here.)

Outdoors

In the outdoor garden, wintergreen makes a charming ornamental groundcover, attractive in all seasons and easy to grow, although it remains poorly known to most gardeners. It is doubly useful in that it can grow under difficult conditions, such as in the deep shade created by conifers.

Curiously, the fruits usually persist throughout the winter and even well into spring, with the result that the plant is both bloom and fruit simultaneously, a very rare phenomenon.

Wintergreen prefers acid soil, either rich or poor, and once established, will show itself to be very tolerant of dry conditions and root competition. Although it’s essentially a shade plant and does best in full to partial shade, it can tolerate full sun if the soil is always kept just a little moist. Although it spreads by offsets, you needn’t worry about its invasiveness, as the new plants appear right near the mother plant and grow very slowly, making it easy to control. It is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 2-6 and in cooler parts of zones 7 and 8.

My Own Experience

I actually had grave reservations about the use of wintergreen as a Christmas plant. After all, it’s a plant of the Far North, more used to spending its winters at -20˚F than at +70˚F. So when I first saw this plant sold as a holiday plant, I was very doubtful about the results, even though I couldn’t resist the urge to buy one and see. I was convinced the plant would succumb very quickly to indoor conditions.

Well, I was wrong. It’s behavior actually turned out to exemplary. Mine remained in perfect condition throughout the winter and well into spring, with attractive shiny leaves and bright red fruit: truly a beautiful if small houseplant.

Not wanting the poor thing to suffer indoors all summer too, I planted mine outdoors in a spot in dense shade when the ground warmed up the next spring. The site was under a spruce tree in soil so thick with roots I had to hack out a planting hole with a hatchet. In spite of the horrible conditions, my wintergreen has done wonderfully, blooming and fruiting annually and slowly – ever so slowly – expanding over the last 7 years to form an attractive carpet about now 2 feet (60 cm) across.

Wintergreen as a Holiday Plant

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Gaultheria procumbens ‘Very Berry’

If you’re considering wintergreen as a holiday plant, you can give it almost any exposure during the Christmas season. Either sun or shade will do, since the plant is essentially at rest in winter. When new shoots begin to appear towards the spring, however, it will need a fair amount of light, even full sun. Keep the soil moist at all times throughout its time indoors. Logically, it would prefer cool temperatures over warm ones, but I found it did fine under normal indoor temperatures. Mine was grown in a plant room where high humidity prevailed: you might want to consider growing it over a humidity tray if the air in your home tends to be dry.

I suggest treating wintergreen as a temporary indoor resident and planting it outdoors in spring. And if you read the label that accompanies it, the merchant also suggests planting it outside after use. If you want to continue to grow it indoors, you should be aware that it probably won’t bloom again indoors. Plus it prefers acid soil and therefore month after month of watering with tap water, which is usually too alkaline for its taste, will probably end up harming it. Instead, try watering with rain water or distilled water.

Where to Find a Plant

If you want to experiment with a wintergreen plant over the holidays, you shouldn’t have trouble finding a specimen. I see it not only in the garden centers, but even supermarkets and big box stores, in displays with other holiday plants.

I recommend you give winterberry a try: it’s not just a gimmick, but instead a plant that has real potential for a good 5 or 6 months of beauty indoors. And who knows? Maybe Santa’s reindeer will want to refuel on the berries when they come by next month?

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