During the winters in northern Wisconsin, most people consider much of the natural world to be in a dormant or resting state. But hiding under the snow, in our acidic soil forests, a low-growing shrub is still green and photosynthesizing.
Wintergreen is a woodland perennial that grows close to the ground and, in winter, is covered by a blanket of insulating snow. The snow allows the wintergreen to avoid the normal stress of being exposed to sub-zero temperatures and the drying winter winds. Each plant has three to five thick, waxy, oval shaped leaves that help reduce water loss. Wintergreen spreads by an underground stem (rhizome) that sends up new shoots. The plant blooms in late July to August and then produces tiny, red fruits.
Originally, natural wintergreen oil was used in flavoring and medicinal creams. The leaves produce methyl salicylate, which our bodies metabolize into salicylic acid, an NSAID pain reliever. Nowadays, the process involved in creating wintergreen oils is so extensive that the actual plant is not typically used. It takes approximately one ton of leaves to produce one pound of pure oil. So today, the scent or flavor of wintergreen for oil is usually synthetically produced.
That means that there is still an abundance of it in nature! While you are out enjoying the snow-covered winter wonderland this season, a plant that is awake and surviving could be right under your feet.