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Sunday, July 1, 2012

WINTERGREEN - USED TO RELAX MUSCLES: HEALTH BENEFITS OF WINTERGREEN


WINTERGREEN, GAULTHERIA PROCUMBENS    
As I write this I can smell the distinct aroma of wintergreen oil which was a favourite of my father’s for massage. He used a gel-like substance which heated and relaxed muscles and when he was giving someone a massage, the whole house was filled with the spicy, tangy smell which hits the back of your throat in much the same way as the combination of eucalyptus and menthol (essential oil of mint) does. I also remember just one time when the person who had come for a massage didn’t get one; my father said he couldn’t do anything for him and advised him to go to a doctor. The poor man died some weeks later from cancer.                                     
  Wintergreen is also called Checkerberry and Teaberry, and is native to eastern North America. It has synonyms for its botanical name too, including Gaultheria repens, G. humilis and Brossaea procumbens; its accepted name is Gaultheria procumbens. Wintergreen is a member of the Ericaceae family of plants and so is related to bilberries, blueberries, cranberries, the strawberry tree and the Greek strawberry tree, among other plants. There is one site in Scotland where it was introduced and has taken hold. However in Britain there are other species of “wintergreen”.
   The fruit and leaves are edible and the leaves may be snacked on raw, although they are bland, but pleasant to eat. The leaves may be used fresh or dried in a tisane, to get rid of the discomfort caused by flatulence.
  The essential oil distilled from the plant is toxic in large doses, so care should be taken if it is used. It may cause dermatitis too and you shouldn’t use it if you are allergic to aspirin, as the plant is a source of methyl salicylate which is closely related to the substance which gives aspirin its anti-inflammatory properties. It is used to flavour toothpaste, mouthwashes and chewing gum among other items.
    The red berries are also edible, although these have that flavour that I attempted to describe in the first paragraph, it has been described as like a spicy medicinal taste, but people make pies and jams with it, so perhaps it isn’t as bad as all that! The bell-shaped white flowers of wintergreen remind me of single lily-of-the valley flowers.                                                                                                          
  This wintergreen is an evergreen shrub which grows to heights of around eight inches but which creeps (hence the species’ name procumbens) along the ground, providing excellent ground cover. The berries are said to be best for eating after a frost, and the fruit, if the birds don’t eat it, or browsing deer, will remain on the plant all winter.
 Native Americans used the leaves to help their respiration and as a stimulant while hunting or carrying heavy loads. The leaves and oil were used to promote women’s menstrual flow and as an analgesic. As the plant has anti-inflammatory properties it was also used to ease the pains of neuralgia, sciatica, rheumatism and other inflammatory health problems. 

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