Thursday, December 6, 2012

Teaberry! (aka Wintergreen... aaka Checkerberry)

When I was out tromping around The Mashpee River Woodlands the other day, I noticed there was a grand amount of teaberry there.

  I think teaberry is the first wild edible I was ever introduced to. I can't remember when, and for the life of me I can't actually ever remember walking in the woods with my mother, but I KNOW she was the one that pointed it out to me. "It is the flavor of Clark's Teaberry Gum" is what she would always tell me. 

I knew of it as teaberry my entire life. I don't think I ever made the connection to wintergreen until I was going on a backwoods camping trip the week before Christmas 2010 with my buddy "Plane" Dave.  I made a comment about how much teaberry there was around and he said "All I see is wintergreen".  

Teaberry berries can be eaten raw or cooked. They have a kind of waxy wintergreen flavor. I have always remembered finding the berries in the fall and winter and so I thought they were a late season fruit, but when I was on the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2011 I found them in abundance. I have since then learned that yes, they come out in the late summer and they just hang on!  They are actually better after a frost, and will stay on the plant pretty much until something eats them. I love to snag them as I walk along. It's a lot of fun when blueberries are in season, to pick a few of each and have a festive little red and blue handful. .. ok.. it's fun in my head anyway :)

Teaberry berries have that kind of little star-ish end on them, similar to a blueberry. The fruit is definitely NOT a nice round berry. 

When broken open the berry has a kind of.. dryish, white inside. The only thing I can think of to equate the texture to would be .. like.. well..wet styrofoam, but it's not gross. 

**I feel like I need to make some sort of disclaimer here saying please don't go out and eat wild food without having explicit knowledge of what you are eating.. that being said.. this one is pretty easy to not screw up if you pay attention**

 The leaves can be eaten (and harvested) any time of year. They can be nibbled on raw or made into a tea. Native Americans brewed a tea from the leaves to alleviate rheumatic symptoms, headache, fever, sore throat and various aches and pains. The active ingredient found in the leaves and berries is methyl salicylate, and is closely related to salicylic acid - the forerunner of aspirin. Early medicinal formulas using wintergreen to reduce fever, body aches, and muscular pains, were probably quite effective. Unlike aspirin, a moderate internal dosage of wintergreen will relieve indigestion rather than inducing it.

To make the more medicinal quality tea:
Fresh leaves have to be fermented in water to develop the wintergreen in them. Pack a jar loosely with fresh leaves and cover it, set it in a warm place for several days until the water is bubbly. Warm the tea by setting it in a pan of hot water. This will be a strong, good-tasting minty tea. The leaves can be strained out and dried in order to use for a tea that won't be so strong.

You can make a quick tea just by breaking up fresh leaves and let it steep in hot water. On the Trail, I would treat myself to Teaberry tea when I wasn't having sassafrass (my favorite Trail tea.. hmm.. another blog ...)

I am always looking for things to do with wild edibles.. and in my searches, I came across a recipe for WINE!! (I still have a bottle of my Dandelion wine left from last summer)

I also found recipes for muffins and pies! The muffin recipe only calls for a cup of berries.. I think this will need to be attempted (and tweaked of course for using other than regular flour).

Natural Root Beer: (this totally looks like fun.. but.. 1 1/2 GALLONS of molasses?!?!?)

  • 5 gallons water
  • 1/2 cup dry yeast 
  • 1 1/2 gallons molasses 
  • 1/2 cup wintergreen leaves, rinsed & dried 
  • 1 cup sassafras root bark 

Combine water and molasses and heat just to the boiling point. Remove from heat and allow to stand for two hours. Add the wintergreen, sassafras root bark, and yeast. Stir just until blended. Allow to ferment overnight at room temperature. Strain and refrigerate.

And of course.. wintergreen (any minty thing) crushed and placed at your doorways will discourage insects from intruding.

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