Although the term “wintergreen” applies to any plant that remains green throughout the year – even during the cold months – the “wintergreen plant” is a title that refers to the small genus gaultheria. Gaultheria consists of about 170 to 180 species, belongs to the ericaceae family, and is native to regions of both North and South America, Asia and Australasia. These plants are commonly made up of low-growing shrubs, but they may also develop into small trees. When young, these plants bear toothy, ovate, yellow-green leaves; however, as they mature, their colors deepen into a dark green, and they become glossy and thick. They also develop small racemes of white, bell-shaped blossoms which may be pink, red or white in hue.
The wintergreen plant, which is best known as something of an herbal cure-all, has a surprisingly interesting history. M. Hugues Gauthier, the Canadian physician and botanist, developed a close association with the Swedish-Finnish botanist Pehr Kalm as they explored the native flora of Quebec. Because of this association, Kalm – along with Carolus Linnaeus – christened the wintergreen plant Gaultheria in his honor. Although this was done with the best of intentions, the scientific name which was meant to aggrandize Gauthier contained a slight error in spelling that has lasted to this day. As a medicinal herb, the wintergreen plant got its start in the second half of the 18th century, when, during the boycott of British trade, American colonists began using wintergreen tea in place of the British variety. Although the American colonists discovered for themselves the curative effects of this plant, many Native American tribes had long been using it to treat everything from scrofula and internal inflammation, to rheumatism and bug bites. Today, these plants are mostly associated with their delightfully fragrant essential oils, which are used to treat numerous diseases. In addition to that, they are used to create perfume, haircare and dental hygiene products, and are a prominent additive to items such as candy, chewing gum and soft drinks.
Wintergreen plants are rife with symbolism. Generally, these shrubs are considered emblems for a calm, cool and collected attitude; however, they are also said to represent healing and protection, and are thought to help break hexes and attract luck, money and romantic partners. As a gift, these plants are often traded between friends and close family members, and are often given as small potted shrubs, or woven into decorative wreaths.