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Nature’s Gifts by Scot Stewart: Melting snow makes way for greenery below

Wintergreen is pictured. American wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, also known as checkerberry and teaberry, like arbutus, is an evergreen wildflower. (Photo courtesy of Scot Stewart)

At length the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snow banks, and the sun dispersing the mist smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white…” – Henry David Thoreau in “Life in the Woods

“Melt, snow, melt! Gardeners know that with each degree the thermometer inches up, with each drop of warm rain, the accumulated snow will shrink a bit more. A clap of thunder may scare some of it away too, who knows? As the snow line recedes, more of the forest floor will be re-exposed. In town, the hope is to find newly blooming crocuses. In the woods, the trailing arbutus will be one of the first to bloom, but that will be a story for a later time. Right now, the hope is to find something else, fragrant and colorful. American wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, also known as checkerberry and teaberry, like arbutus, is an evergreen wildflower. As the snow melts there is a certain excitement arising from the sight of green plants. Add to that the possibility of some fresh, bright red berries attached and true hope arises true Spring is really coming!

The familiar flavor of wintergreen in gum, Lifesavers, and toothpaste can be found American wintergreen’s red berries and round, green leaves. Both fruit and leaves can be chewed or made into wintergreen tea. They do contain methyl salicylate, a chemical similar to the salicylate in aspirin and is recommended to be used with care and not in larger volumes because it can have some toxic effects interacting with the nervous system, increasing tinnitus, interfering with liver and heart function. It is not recommended for children and can cause blood thinning and interactions with blood thinning drugs.

Like a number of other members of the Heath Family, the leaves have a waxy covering, help them retain water, and remain green all winter. The fruits feed mice, grouse and other animals in winter. They remain bright red into summer when they begin to dry up. The new flower appear in the latter part of summer are pinkish bell shape flowers like bearberry, blueberry and huckleberry.

Winterberry plants like dry sandy soil and seem to prefer acidic soils, like the type found under white, red and jack pine. Some botanists have noted they seem to do well after fires have burned through the duff under the pines. Wintergreen is common there where blueberry pickers spend their summers in the Sands Plains, north of Forestville and other dry, piney areas. Newly revealed plants were appearing under the dense stands of pines around Picnic Rocks in Marquette Saturday before the rains melted even more snow and the new wet flurries put into question all those new revelations. Those evergreens are true inspirations with so much snow still around and the newest light accumulations arriving recently in some areas, and it will take the richly aromatic, early blossoms of the trailing arbutus coming next month to truly outshine and upstage this early color and sign of hope for the coming of Spring.

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