It may be winter in the northern hemisphere (at least some days), but there is still plenty to see if you go for a walk in the woods. Some plants may be easier to spot in winter than they are during the growing season, because they have less competition for light, and for your attention. Striped Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) is one of those plants. Striped Wintergreen can be seen in woodlands, skimming just above the fallen leaves.
A clue that winter is the perfect time to look for this plant is found in the translation of its genus, ‘Chimaphila’, whose origins are the Greek words ‘cheima’, which means ‘winter’ and ‘phileo’, which translates as ‘to love’. Plants of this genus are named for their love of winter.
Why do they love winter? Striped Wintergreen is an evergreen perennial of the forest understory, growing to a height of about 4 – 12 inches (10 – 30 cm). Somewhat woody at the base of the stem, botanists classify this species as a shrub or subshrub. Its green and white striped leaves make it easy to spot in the winter months when leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs that tower over this diminutive plant. During the growing season, its taller neighbors often obscure Striped Wintergreen from view, as well as from the sun’s rays. But throughout winter, Striped Wintergreen’s evergreen leaves have unfettered access to the sun’s energy. They can photosynthesize, store the energy, and make it available to support Striped Wintergreen’s summertime reproductive efforts.
Striped Wintergreen is known by many other aliases (common names), including Spotted Wintergreen, Pipsissewa, and Rheumatism Root. Some of these names refer to the medicinal uses of this plant. Striped Wintergreen contains chemical compounds with antiseptic, antibacterial, and astringent properties, among others. One of the compounds, ursolic acid, is effective in treating arthritis and other causes of pain and inflammation. Striped Wintergreen and a close relative that is also called Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones. The name Pipsissewa is derived from a Creek Native American word that means ‘to break into small pieces’, referring to stones in the urinary tract.
Is it just lucky happenstance that Striped Wintergreen contains compounds that have beneficial medicinal effects for humans? Not completely. Striped Wintergreen faces some of the same pressures that humans do from bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which are present in the thousands in the fallen leaves with which Striped Wintergreen lives, and that are working to break down the leaves until they become the next layer of nutrient-filled soil. Striped Wintergreen has evolved to produce chemical compounds to protect itself from this efficient recycling team surrounding it. What is lucky for us is that these chemical constituents also have a positive effect in human bodies.
Striped Wintergreen blooms in summer, usually sometime from June through August.
When fully open, the flowers with their recurved petals resemble crowns, a possible explanation for another common name for this plant, Striped Prince’s Pine.
Striped Wintergreen’s primary pollinators are Bumble Bees (Bombus species), but Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) may also be enticed by nectar to visit the flowers. If the bees help Striped Wintergreen successfully achieve pollination, the resulting fruit is visible throughout the winter. These dry fruit capsules look like tiny turbans, or miniature winter squash split open at the seams to release the seeds inside.
The chemical compounds present in Striped Wintergreen, along with leathery, waxy-coated leaves, are generally effective in deterring herbivores. Deer don’t typically browse this plant, even though it’s one of only a few that are green in the winter. But the photo below shows that someone, probably a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile species), has figured out a way to use parts of the leaves. Leaf-cutter bees harvest regularly-shaped oval, circular or semi-circular pieces of leaves to construct cells in their nests.
Striped Wintergreen’s native range is the eastern third of the United States, north to a few locations in southern Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It’s rare at the edges of its range, and is listed as endangered in Illinois, Maine, Ontario and Quebec, and exploitably vulnerable in New York state.
Experience some ‘Winter Love’ (another common name for Chimaphila maculata). Look for Striped Wintergreen in winter, and you’ll know where to find it during the summer months when it’s in bloom.
More Reasons to Love Winter
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Pipsissewa. From Planting the Future, Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Gladstar, Rosemary and Hirsch, Pamela. 2000.
Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. 2007.
Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.
Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. 2000.
Martin, Laura C. Wildflower Folklore. 1984.
Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania. 2007