Gaultheria (Wintergreen)

Ornamental evergreen shrubs with aromatic leaves, fall color, and bright berries

The genus Gaultheria contains broadleaf evergreen shrubs, commonly called wintergreens, that are typically grown as ground cover. These ornamental shrubs have leathery leaves that are usually glossy, dark green and have red to purple fall color. However, a variegated variety is now available, which blushes in pink for fall and winter. Aromatic, they smell of wintergreen when crushed. Small, waxy, urn-shaped pinkish-white flowers, borne in erect or drooping clusters, bloom in spring or summer, followed in fall, by round, fleshy fruits that resemble cherries and last a long time. The bright, edible berries are a valuable winter food source for birds and small animals.

Gaultheria is a genus of about 135 species, of which G. procumbens (wintergreen, checkerberry, boxberry, spiceberry, teaberry) is the most popular. This native understory plant, indigenous to hardwood forests, woodlands, meadows, and fields in Eastern North America, won the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. The following are familiar varieties with similar attributes: G. hookeri (hooker’s wintergreen) has small blue, purple, or mauve fruits; G. shallon (shallon bush), a native to western North America, grows 4 to 10 feet tall and has black fruits; and G. fragrantissima (fragrant wintergreen) is native to mountainous regions in East Asia and Northern India.

Most wintergreens are cold hardy and low maintenance, growing easily in locations with full shade to bright, indirect sunlight and moist, organically rich soils, having an acidic pH level between 4.0 and 6.0. They are generally unbothered by pests or disease. Wintergreens have a slow growth rate and a spreading habit and eventually create a creeping carpet of vegetation through runners and rhizomes. They are charming cottage garden plants, shown to best effect when grouped or massed in beds and borders or on banks and slopes. But they’re also perfect for patio pots.