This article came from my mom sharing her experiences of growing up on a local Tennessee hillside farm back in the day before you could go to the store and find 10 choices of anything you want. She knew how to go to the woods to find flavorings for beverages or medicinals to treat a sore throat. One plant she told me about was mountain tea.
Mountain tea (Gaultheria procumbens) has several common names, including teaberry and American wintergreen. It is a low growing plant that is actually a tiny shrub that only grows to around three or four inches tall. It is a member of the Heath family, and so is cousin to rhododendron, mountain laurel and blueberry. The leaves are evergreen and oval shaped, somewhat shiny, and leather-like. They have a distinct wintergreen scent when crushed. The flowers, which bloom in from July to August, are small, white bell shapes that dangle down from the top of the plant. In the fall it produces a red berry that is edible and slightly sweet with a mild wintergreen flavor. Mountain tea prefers growing in acidic soil, and so can be found in pine or mixed pine/hardwood forests.
The fame of mountain tea is the wintergreen odor and flavor it produces, which comes from an “essential oil” called oil of wintergreen. In herb lore, an oil is essential when it carries a distinctive scent or flavoring of the plant. Oil of wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, a close relative of aspirin, and so is believed to have some pain relieving qualities. Native Americans brewed a tea from the leaves to treat rheumatism, headache, fever, sore throats and various aches and pains. During the American Revolution a tea from the leaves was used as a substitute for their regular tea, which was scarce. Oil of wintergreen is now made artificially, and is used for everything from scenting candles to flavoring toothpaste. Teaberry gum is one of the more famous products that use the wintergreen flavor.
Mountain tea has a minor wildlife use as food. Deer and grouse will graze the leaves, while the berry is eaten by bobwhite quail, black bear, mice, fox and gray squirrel.
If you want to try your hand at making a cup of mountain tea, you’ll need a little patience. The leaves have to be steeped over a long period, otherwise the plant will not release enough oil to be noticeable. Here are instructions, but remember to try only small amounts of any new food in case of food allergies, and be sure you are using the correct plant. Fill a glass jar with teaberry leaves and cover with water. Seal with a lid and let it stand for several days in a warm place. When the water starts to look bubbly it should be done. Drain the leaves and dry them. They can now be used to make a hot cup of tea by steeping six or seven leaves in boiling water until it has reached the desired flavor strength you want.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.