Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Striped Wintergreen - Pipsissewa

Striped or Spotted Wintergreen

     An attractive and easily recognizable evergreen plant is Chimaphila maculata. Its various common names though may lead to some confusion, as several plants go by the same names. I like to refer to it as Striped Wintergreen, but it has a great many more: Spotted Wintergreen, Striped Prince's Pine, Striped Prince's Plume, Rheumatism Root, Dragon's Tongue, and Pipsissewa among others. Almost all these names can refer to other plants as well.
     Its scientific name Chimaphila is derived from the Greek for "Winter Loving" and refers to its evergreen nature. Maculata simply means "spotted or "blotched." This short perennial plant (under 10 inches) has relatively thick, toothed, waxy leaves in a whorl around a reddish stem. They are variegated, with the veins of the leaves usually being a light color. It stands out in its woodland, dry settings regardless of season. It is in the Heath (Ericaceae) Family, though some botanists still lump it in the Wintergreen (Pyrolaceae) Family.

Striped Wintergreen seed heads 

     The flowers are usually white, blooming in midsummer and hanging downwards. If they get pollinated (usually by bumblebees), the flower stems straighten and point upwards. The brown seed capsules can stand through the winter. New leaf growth is a light green, while the older leaves can take on a purplish haze in the deep winter. It is not considered preferred forage for deer (unless there are too many of them, in which case the evergreen foliage makes it very vulnerable) and there are at least two species of caterpillars that feed on it. Spotted Wintergreen can also spread by underground runners, but doesn't ever seem to be a very plentiful. The seeds are difficult to germinate and they do not transplant well either. This may be due to needing certain mycorrhizal fungi to be present in the soil to allow the plant to grow. It also seems to do better after low intensity fires. So please do not try and move the plant to other locations or gardens, despite how attractive they may be. You will likely only succeed in killing them. In fact, the plant is considered Endangered in parts of Canada, in Illinois, and Maine.
     Striped Wintergreen has been used by people for ages. One of its common names, Pipsissewa, comes from the Native American Creek language. meaning to "break down or make smaller pieces." This was thought to be in reference to its use to treat such things as kidney and gall stones. Interestingly, some people can eat its aromatic leaves, drink it as a tea, flavor candy and root beer with it, while others get a rash from the oils if it touches their skin. Noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman recorded many more uses.
     The Cherokee for instance made a poultice from it to treat pain and rheumatism. It was used to treat ulcers, cancers, and urinary disorders. An infusion was made from it to deal with colds and fevers. It was used for ringworm and eczema. The uses varied from eating it as a trail nibble, to using to induce vomiting in babies, to treating cattle, to even killing rats.
     The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) would add it to many medicines in the belief it would make them stronger (maybe it just made them taste better?). Spotted Wintergreen would be used to treat urinary pains, rheumatism, stomach cancer, fevers, and venereal disease. It would be used to induce pregnancy and de-worm babies, as a blood purifier or a laxative. Rheumatism Root would help with kidney ailments and with those who had gone through a miscarriage. It was even used for pimples and face sores.
     Other tribes using it included the Thompson who steeped the leaves into a tea, the Blackfeet who smoked it, and the Nanticoke who used it for malaria or any type of shivering. The Yurok thought it helped with rheumatism, aches, pains, kidney ailments, and to relax muscles.
     During the Civil War, Dr, Francis Porcher, charged with finding alternative medicines that were hard to get through Union blockades, recommended its use as well. He found it a useful diuretic and a treatment for digestive disorders. He noted its use by the indigenous people for rheumatism and ulcers. Porcher wrote: "In our present need for tonics and diuretics, in dropsy, or swelling following low and protracted fevers among our soldiers, no plant will be found more serviceable than pipsissewa. It is aromatic, tonic, and diuretic. It can be easily collected around our camps, in shady woods, in almost every part of our Confederacy." He placed a lot of faith in its curative qualities.

The distinct variegated foliage of Pipsissewa

     Indeed, this low attractive evergreen has been found to be useful wherever it grows. In Mexico, it is believed to be an important element in tesguino, an alcoholic beverage made from sprouted corn. This corn beer is still considered a scared drink among the Tarahumara people.
     With my aching back from shovelling snow this weekend, I'm tempted to try some Pipsissewa for my aches and pains. But I know it's not that common anymore, better I instead allow it to make me feel better when I notice its variegated foliage once again in the woods when all the snow melts. "Winter Loving" it may be, me not so much...


  1. Thank you for the interesting and informative blog.

  2. Thanks for the info Alonso! I'd read about Pipsissewa in one of my favorite book series, but didn't realize it was the same as striped Wintergreen which I'd spotted in Turkey Run Park when I was a park ranger there. Great to know the herbal uses of it.

  3. Very 8nteresting! And coincidentally today, outside charlottesville I saw a bumblebee, a queen bee I think, resting on the sun on the porch screen, I'm imagining having just emerged.