Plant of the Week

Gaultheria hispidula range map.
Gaultheria hispidula range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Mat of creeping snowberry stems with one fruit and Sphagnum moss.
Mat of creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) stems with one fruit and Sphagnum moss. Ottawa National Forest, Michigan. Photo by Ian Shackleford.

Pile of creeping snowberry fruits with a sample stem.
Pile of creeping snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) fruits with a sample stem. Ottawa National Forest, Michigan. Photo by Ian Shackleford.

Creeping Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula)

By Ian Shackleford, Botanist
Ottawa National Forest

Creeping snowberry is a low trailing perennial plant found in bogs and wetland forests in the northern United States and Canada. The leaves are round and only 5 to 10 millimeters long. The creeping stems form leafy mats on logs and hummocks, often near Sphagnum moss. The stems and under-surface of the leaves are covered with brown bristles. Sometimes the leaf margins and fruits have the bristles too. Flowers appear in the spring, and are white, four-parted, on short backward-curving stalks from the leaf axils.

The flowers develop into small white berries, egg-shaped and 5-10 mm long, ripening in mid to late summer. The berries are edible and have a spectacular wintergreen flavor, similar to the related wintergreen plant (Gaultheria procumbens). The flavor is more concentrated in the snowberry, and has been compared with that of a wet Tic-Tac. To find creeping snowberry fruits, look for the mats of tiny leaves, then crouch down to find the white fruits. They may be hidden among the small leaves.

Creeping snowberry is in the Heath family (Ericaceae). It fits in that family due to being a woody plant, flower characters, the way the anthers release their pollen, and a fondness for acid habitats.

Creeping snowberry is rare at the southern end of its range. It is state-protected in Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

The genus Gaultheria was named for Hugues Gaultier ,a naturalist and physician in Quebec in mid-18th century. The Latin name hispidula refers to the bristles on the stem and leaves.

Another common name is "moxie" or "moxie plum." The word "moxie" may be derived from the Algonquian Indian word "maski", meaning "medicine". Moxie is better-known today thanks to the soft drink created by Dr. Augustin Thompson (1835-1903). He created the patent medicine "Moxie Nerve Food" which he later developed into the soft drink "Beverage Moxie Nerve Food" which eventually became just "Moxie." The soft drink reportedly was flavored with extract of gentian root and wintergreen. Extensive advertising in the 1920s brought the word into popular usage, as in "This guy's got moxie!" The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines moxie as energy, pep, courage, determination, or know-how. In the 2009 film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Amelia Earheart (Amy Adams) tells the night watchman (Ben Stiller) that he needs to find his moxie. Next time you are in a northern wetland forest, you can find your own moxie.

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