Confusion, confusion. I am wanting to write about three small, evergreen plants
that you may come upon on the Nature Preserve. If you were to ask six
individuals the names for these plants, you would most likely receive six different
answers. This illustrates the problem of using common names instead of the
more specific scientific names. For the purpose of this article, and not by my
personal choice, these are the names I will use in the order in which they appear.
Striped Pipsissewa - Chimaphila maculata.
Prince’s Pine - Chimaphila umbellata.
Teaberry - Gaultheria procumbens.
Pipsissewa is the beautiful Native American name that our family always used for
Chimaphila maculata. It is one of several small (4-6 inch), upright, broad-leaved wood-
land plants that brave the cold and snow. Indeed, the scientific name Chimaphila means frost (or winter weather) and love (same root as Philadelphia) or to put it another way, loves winter weather. Another name that I have heard is Spotted Wintergreen, however perhaps erroneously, our family reserved the name Wintergreen exclusively for Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) because of its wonderful fragrance.
ake matters worse, both Chimaphila maculata and its close relative Chimaphila
umbellata are members of the Pyrola, or wintergreen family. Confused yet? For our purposes, I will use the name Pipsissewa. To think about it in a different light, when the very first Europeans arrived and asked what is that lovely, little, useful plant was called, I am convinced they were told, “Pipsissewa”.
The most frequently seen member of the Chimaphila genus is the striped pipsissewa. It is frequently found in pine forests but also grows quite well under hardwoods. It often grows in small colonies of six to a dozen plants since it spreads both by seeds and underground stems. In June-July a three-inch flower stalk appears topped by two to five arching over, downward facing, white or pale pink, fragrant flowers.
The center portion of the flower is surrounded by a crown of stamens. Since it has attractive, striped leaves, this was my favored type when I was younger. Because of the small size and beauty, I used to collect a single plant to grow in my woodland terrarium along with several types of moss and perhaps an ebony spleenwort fern or two.
We also saw numerous places where Prince’s Pine, Chimaphila umbellata grew in
the same pine woodland. As the decades roll by, I have seen less and less of both
species, especially the latter. At home our name for this species was simply pipsissewa or shining pipsissewa. Others refer to it as Prince’s Pine, a name I would read in books not knowing exactly what they were referring to. It grew in our pine forest in in nearly equal numbers as C. maculata. Personally, as a youth, I preferred the beauty of the striped pipsissewa. At the present time Prince’s Pine seems to be completely absent from our farm, however, I have recently found it growing at two locations in the Blair’s Pond Forest and perhaps there are other undiscovered sites as well. It is listed as category S-2 in Delaware’s list of threatened plants and should naturally be protected.
Because these small plants could survive the cold and frost, they were believed to
have medically significant power and were used in folk remedies to treat coughs,
colds, backache, bladder infections, and as a substitute for tobacco. Even though
some medically useful compounds have been isolated from these plants, they should never be used to self-medicate. It’s best to leave medication to the experts. At some point in history humankind has smoked everything from dope to rope. I once heard a friend say, he never wanted to roll up a bunch of leaves, shove them in his mouth, and then set fire to them. Today we have learned the tragic consequences of that practice.
The third small, upright, non-vining, broad-leaved evergreen plant that you could
possibly see is Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens).
Once again, our family referred to this as wintergreen since the crushed leaves emit the taste and odor of the organic compound methyl salicylate. This is the familiar flavoring used in teas, candy, toothpastes, chewing gum, and medicine. Indeed, there are those who hate wintergreen flavoring because of the association with the vile tasting Pepto-Bismol. Many decades ago, the leaves of this little plant were distilled commercially to provide that flavoring. At a later period, the identical oil was distilled from the twigs of sweet birch (Betula lenta) which was much more abundant and easily harvested. Only Mother Nature knows why the identical oil appears in two unrelated plants. (Read more about birches in a later post). Currently methyl salicylate is manufactured in factories using organic chemistry.
Teaberry plants (may be listed as wintergreen) can be ordered online or from specialty nursery stock catalogs and grows best in acidic soil, semi-shaded rock garden setting. Water during periods of drought. Although Teaberry grows in large, dense colonies at places in Virginia, West Virginia, and Western Maryland, it is much rarer in Sussex County, Delaware. During our collegiate years my wife, myself and two cousins picked a pint of teaberry fruits from a particularly large patch, on a powerline right of way south of Oakland, Maryland. I have forgotten what my cousin’s family did with them. The berries can serve as a trailside snack, a colorful addition to salad, plus the leaves make a delicious tea. Later in the day when we returned to our cousin’s home, we were served vanilla ice cream with serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) sauce. Yum!
Formerly there were colonies of Teaberry on the Johnson Branch drainage between Apel’s Road and Shawnee Road plus four, or more, sites along the east side of Tantrough Branch between Staytonsville and Hidden Meadow Lane. As far as I have been able to determine, all these colonies have been destroyed, mostly by deer and one by deforestation. Having said that, I believe there is a good chance that some still grows in the large, protected forest of Blair’s Pond Woods. Teaberry is listed as category S-1 in Sussex Co.
So, get out into the brisk air and hopefully you will be able to see and photograph all three of these sturdy little broad-leaved evergreen plants. We would appreciate reporting any findings of Chimaphila umbellata or Gaultheria procumbens to us, or Delaware Natural Heritage Program, 4876 Hay Point Landing Rd., Smyrna, DE 19977.
*********************************Photos by the author, unless otherwise indicated*************************