Festive wintergreen

  • Article by: NANCY ROSE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2007 - 1:12 PM

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Photo: Jane Friedmann, Star Tribune

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WINTERGREEN

Gaultheria procumbens

Wintergreen, a shrubby evergreen ground cover, displays its festive combination of glossy green leaves and bright red fruit from late summer all the way through winter. If you crush a leaf, you can smell its distinctive wintergreen scent.

This slow-spreading ground cover has many slender woody stems that are clothed year-round with deep green leaves, which may take on a red-purple tint in late fall. During summer, it features small, pale pink-to-white urn-shaped flowers, which are followed by round, red fruits that hang on through winter.

Hardy to Zone 3, wintergreen is native to the cool woods of north-central and northeast Minnesota, but it also makes a lovely, low-growing ground cover for gardens, as long as its requirements can be met.

Like azaleas, rhododendrons and blueberries -- its relatives in the heath family -- wintergreen thrives in soil that is acidic and moist, yet well-drained. Though it prefers soil with a fair amount of organic matter (think woodsy humus), it also will grow in somewhat sandy or rocky soil as long as it's acidic and moist. If your garden site is hot, dry and alkaline (high soil pH), don't try growing wintergreen.

Plant wintergreen in a moist, shaded rock garden or woodland garden. It also makes an attractive edging around groups of azaleas or blueberries, where all the plants require the same soil conditions.


Plant type: Shrubby evergreen ground cover.

Hardiness: Zone 3.

Season: Attractive all year.

Size: 4 to 6 inches tall.

Available as: Container-grown plants are available in spring at local nurseries or through catalogs.

Fun fact: Wintergreen was once the main source of oil of wintergreen, used in medicine and to flavor candies and gum. The flavoring is now produced synthetically.

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