This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - White, small, usually solitary, nodding from a leaf axil. Corolla rounded bell-shape, 5-toothed; calyx 5-parted, persistent; 10 included stamens, their anther-sacs opening by a pore at the top. Stem: Creeping above or below ground, its branches 2 to 6 in. high. Leaves: Mostly clustered at top of branches; alternate, glossy, leathery, evergreen, much darker above than underneath, oval to oblong, very finely saw-edged; the entire plant aromatic. Fruit: Bright red, mealy, spicy, berry-like; ripe in October.
Preferred Habitat - Cool woods, especially under evergreens. Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - Newfoundland to Georgia, westward to Michigan and Manitoba.
However truly the poets may make us feel the spirit of Nature in their verse, can many be trusted when it comes to the letter of natural science?
" Where cornels arch their cool, dark boughs o'er beds of wintergreen," wrote Bryant; yet it is safe to say that nine colonies of this hardy little plant out of every ten he saw were under evergreen trees, not dogwoods. When the July sun melts the fragrance out of the pines high overhead, and the dim, cool forest aisles are more fragrant with commingled incense from a hundred natural censers than any stone cathedral's, the wintergreen's little waxy bells hang among the glossy leaves that form their aromatic carpet. On such a day, in such a resting place, how one thrills with the consciousness that it is good to be alive!
Omnivorous children who are addicted to birch-chewing, prefer these tender yellow-green leaves tinged with red, when newly put forth in June - "Youngsters " rural New Englanders call them then. In some sections a kind of tea is steeped from the leaves, which also furnish the old-fashioned embrocation, wintergreen oil. Late in the year the glossy bronze carpet of old leaves dotted over with vivid red "berries" invites much trampling by hungry birds and beasts, especially deer and bears, not to mention well-fed humans. Coveys of Bob Whites and packs of grouse will plunge beneath the snow for fare so delicious as this spicy, mealy fruit that hangs on the plant till spring, of course for the benefit of just such colonizing agents as they. Quite a different species, belonging to another family, bears the true partridge-berry, albeit the wintergreen shares with it a number of popular names. In a strict sense neither of these plants produces a berry; for the fruit of the true partridge vine (Mitchella repens) is a double drupe, or stone bearer, each half containing four hard, seed-like nutlets; while the wintergreen's so-called berry is merely the calyx grown thick, fleshy, and gayly colored - only a coating for the five-celled ovary that contains the minute seeds. Little baskets of wintergreen berries bring none too high prices in the fancy fruit and grocery shops when we calculate how many charming plants such unnatural use of them sacrifices.
Closely allied to the wintergreen is the Red Bearberry, Kin-nikinic, Bear's Grape, Fox-berry or Meal-berry, as it is variously called (Arctostaphvlos - Uva-Ursi = bearberry). Trailing its spreading branches over sandy ground, rocky hillsides and steeps until it sometimes forms luxuriant mats, it closely resembles its cousin the arbutus in its manner of growth, and has been mistaken for it by at least one poet. But its tiny, rounded, urn-shaped flowers, which come in May and June, are white, not salver form and pink; the entire plant is not rusty-hairy; the dark little leathery evergreen leaves are spatulate, and, moreover, it bears small but abundant clusters of round, berry-like fruit, an attainment the arbutus still struggles for, but cannot yet reach. Bumblebees are the flower's chief benefactors. Game fowl, especially grouse, but many other birds too, and various animals which are glad to add the clusters of smooth red bearberries to their scanty winter menu, however insipid and dry they may be, have distributed the seed from Labrador across Arctic America to Alaska, southward to Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nebraska, and California. How plants do compel insects, birds, and beasts to work for them! The entire plant is astringent, and has been used in medicine; also by leather dressers.