Wintergreen berries (Gaultheria procumbens) are my favorite January breath mint and trailside snack. One of the few fruits that is actually at its sweetest and freshest on a cold winter or early spring day, frozen wintergreen berries offer the texture of sorbet and a classic wintergreen flavor.
The rosy red berries of this native species persistently cling to the plant and, like wild fox grapes, truly come into their own after the first frost. Prolonged, hard frost only invigorates the wintergreen flavor, reducing lingering bitterness and bringing out the cool, creamy texture of the red berry’s flesh. The fruit is at its finest freshly picked and eaten raw, but its flavor can be strong and only one or two berries is plenty to cleanse the palette. This is not a fruit that should be eaten by the handful; think of it as an garnish or palate cleanser.
Honestly, I cannot remember when I discovered the joy of wintergreen berries, but I can tell you that it was years before I gained the confidence to forage wild mushrooms. As a child who roamed the coniferous wood that abutted pastures behind our home in Western Massachusetts, I loved the unexpected sour, minty, piney, or herbal flavors I discovered in the woods. I grazed on tangy wood sorrel and low-bush blueberries in summer, and nibbled wintergreen berries and made black birch tea on bright January mornings.
Wintergreen thrives in acidic soils, showing a particular affinity for hemlock and white pine in my local Vermont forests. Wintergreen likes shade but to yield the most abundant, plumpest, and juiciest fruit, it needs occasional dappled sunlight. I often see the best fruitings very close to the side of the trail or along power line cuts, but too much sunlight can make the berries slightly bitter or buddy.
The plant is not rare if you know the proper habitat, but fruitings are often modest and intermittent and it takes patience and precise timing to find the plumpest, reddest berries at their sweetest, coolest and mintiest. Each small plant may put out just one or two fruits per season, though trios of red jewels are not unusual. Be mindful to harvest sustainably – these berries are slow-growing and a few go a long way as a sweet or savory garnish.
Wintergreen almost always grows in close proximity to its sneakiest look-alike, partridgeberry, which is not highly toxic but is bland and certainly not recommended for human consumption (leave it for the partridges). Keep in mind that the potent essential oil of wintergreen leaves can be toxic in certain quantities.
If the plant has lots of small red berries and a viney, groundcover-like growth habit, it is probably partridgeberry. Wintergreen looks more like a tiny shrub than a running groundcover, and each small wintergreen plant never has more than a few distinguished looking berries. Many plants are without berries. Wintergreen berries, depending on the season, may have a pronounced minty aroma, and always offer a wintergreen flavor that the partridgeberry lacks. The richness and quality of this flavor, and whether the berry is something you want to savor or spit varies dramatically depending on exposure to sunlight and frost.
In their finest winter form, wintergreen berries are underrated and intriguing. This bright red berry stays crisp and fresh when other fruits of the forest are long rotten, offering a zesty burst of woodland flavor to enliven the darkest winter day.