Index of Species Information
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION :
Coladonato, Milo. 1994. Gaultheria procumbens. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ .
SCS PLANT CODE :
COMMON NAMES :
The currently accepted scientific name for wintergreen is Gaultheria
procumbens L. (Ericaceae) . There are no recognized subspecies,
varieties, or forms.
LIFE FORM :
FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS :
No special status
OTHER STATUS :
DISTRIBUTION AND OCCURRENCE
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION :
Wintergreen occurs from Newfoundland and New England south in the
mountains to Georgia and west to Minnesota [13,32].
FRES10 White - red - jack pine
FRES11 Spruce - fir
FRES13 Loblolly - shortleaf pine
FRES14 Oak - pine
FRES15 Oak - hickory
FRES17 Elm - ash - cottonwood
FRES18 Maple - beech - birch
FRES19 Aspen - birch
AL CT DE GA IL IN KY ME MD MA
MI MN NH NJ NY NC OH PA RI TN
VT VA WV WI MB NB NF NS ON PE
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :
KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :
K082 Mosaic of K074 and K100
K093 Great Lakes spruce - fir forest
K095 Great Lakes pine forest
K099 Maple - basswood forest
K100 Oak - hickory forest
K101 Elm - ash forest
K102 Beech - maple forest
K103 Mixed mesophytic forest
K104 Appalachian oak forest
K106 Northern hardwoods
K107 Northern hardwoods - fir forest
K108 Northern hardwoods - spruce forest
K110 Northeastern oak - pine forest
K111 Oak - hickory - pine forest
SAF COVER TYPES :
1 Jack pine
12 Black spruce
13 Black spruce - tamarack
14 Northern pin oak
15 Red pine
17 Pin cherry
18 Paper birch
19 Gray birch - red maple
20 White pine - northern red oak - red maple
21 Eastern white pine
23 Eastern hemlock
24 Hemlock - yellow birch
25 Sugar maple - beech - yellow birch
26 Sugar maple - basswood
27 Sugar maple
28 Black cherry - maple
30 Red spruce - yellow birch
32 Red spruce
33 Red spruce - balsam fir
37 Northern white-cedar
39 Black ash - American elm - red maple
40 Post oak - blackjack oak
42 Bur oak
43 Bear oak
45 Pitch pine
46 Eastern redcedar
53 White oak
55 Northern red oak
60 Beech - sugar maple
62 Silver maple - American elm
73 Southern redcedar
75 Shortleaf pine
79 Virginia pine
SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES :
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES :
Wintergreen is commonly found in the understory of pine (Pinus spp.) and
hardwood forests of New England. In western Nova Scotia and the Great
Lake States, it occurs in jack pine (P. banksiana) and spruce-larch
(Picea spp.-Larix spp.) forests [4,20,53,59]. It is a common understory
species in maple-oak (Acer spp.-Quercus spp.) forests of upper Michigan
. It is a dominant understory shrub of oak-poplar/fern (Quercus
spp.-Populus spp./Pteridium spp.) communities of southern New York .
Wintergreen is named as a dominant or codominant understory species in
the following classifications:
Habitat classification system field guide: northern Lake States Region
(Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northeast Wisconsin) 
Forest-type studies in the Adirondack Region 
Field guide to forest habitat types of northern Wisconsin 
Vegetation of the Great Smoky Mountains 
Understory species commonly associated with wintergreen include
huckleberries (Gaylussacia spp.), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.),
raspberries (Rubus spp.), grapes (Vitis spp.), mountain-laurel (Kalmia
latifolia), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), witchhazel
(Hamamelis virginiana), bog Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum),
partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), and lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE :
Wintergreen is not taken in large quantities by any species of wildlife,
but the regularity of its use enhances its importance. Its fruit
persists through the winter and it is one of the few sources of green
leaves in winter . White-tailed deer browse wintergreen throughout
its range, and in some localities it is an important winter food. Other
animals that eat wintergreen are wild turkey, sharp-tailed grouse,
northern bobwhite, ring-necked pheasant, black bear, white-footed mouse,
and red fox. Wintergreen is a favorite food of the eastern chipmunk, and
the leaves are a minor winter food of the gray squirrel in Virginia
NUTRITIONAL VALUE :
COVER VALUE :
VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES :
OTHER USES AND VALUES :
The leaves of wintergreen are used to make oil of wintergreen 
OTHER MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS :
Wintergreen is ordinarily plentiful in the woodlands of the Northeast,
and no special care is needed to perpetuate it. Seedlings or clones are
established by plantings beneath taller shrubs or in other partially
shaded sites. When plants have established, fruit production is
stimulated by thinning timber stands and removing overtopping vegetation
Wintergreen can be controlled by phenoxy herbicides .
BOTANICAL AND ECOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS :
Wintergreen is a spreading, evergreen, rhizomatous shrub which grows 4
to 8 inches (10-20 cm) tall [5,11,28]. Wintergreen creeps along the
ground, forming a dense carpet of shiny leaves that are 2 to 6 inches
(5-15 cm) long. The small flowers are less than 0.5 inches (1.2 cm)
long and are borne at the base of the leaves . The fruit is
berrylike capsule with a large fleshy calyx . The roots are 1 inch
(2.5 cm) or less in depth [14,31].
RAUNKIAER LIFE FORM :
REGENERATION PROCESSES :
Reproduction in wintergreen is both sexual and asexual. It typically
reproduces vegetatively from rhizomes. Vegetative growth is initiated
as additional branching on old stems, or as new stems on creeping
rhizomes . The long, infrequently branching rhizomes distribute
ramets over large areas; it exploits gaps in litter for clonal
propagation [23,50]. Bird-disseminated seeds are probably the source of
new plants colonizing old fields [32,41].
In the oak-pine upland forest of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey,
wintergreen occurrence was positively correlated (p<0.05) with the
presence of litter and dead wood .
SITE CHARACTERISTICS :
As long as the soil is acidic, wintergreen grows well on many substrates
including peat, sand, sandy loam, and coal spoils. It has been found
growing where soil pH ranged from 3.5 to 6.9 on the surface to 4.0 to
6.9 below the surface. However, a pH of 4.5 to 6.0 has been reported as
optimum for growth, with 7.0 the maximum wintergreen tolerates.
Wintergreen mainly occurs on moist sites but tolerates moisture
conditions ranging from dry to poorly drained [2,32].
In jack pine communities in upper Michigan, wintergreen was present on
xeric, transitional, and mesic sites with frequencies of 11, 62, and 86
percent, respectively . In Nova Scotia, wintergreen is found on the
tops of ridges and knolls in very shallow soil .
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS :
Wintergreen is shade tolerant. Fruiting, however, usually occurs in
openings [23,32,50]. It is a common understory species in the
Northeast . In a Minnesota Norway pine (P. resinosa) forest,
wintergreen had greatest abundance of cover under intermediate light
Wintergreen is found in the oldest vegetation in Grass River Bog, an
undrained sand plain in the Adirondacks .
Wintergreen is part of the understory vegetation in climax pine forests
of northern Minnesota .
In eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) climax forest in northeastern
Pennsylvania, wintergreen frequency ranged from 0 to 6 percent .
In the Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, wintergreen was present in
early and climax stages of forest succession . Frequency in the
birch-poplar (Betula spp.-Populus spp.) stage was 58 percent; it was
"abundant" in the pine stage. Frequency was 36 percent in the
fir-spruce (Abies spp.-Picea spp.) stage. Wintergreen was not present
in the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) stage, but frequency was 14 percent
in eastern hemlock climax forest .
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT :
Wintergreen flowers from the end of May to September depending on
geographic location [10,37]. In Illinois, wintergreen flowers initiated
during June open in mid-July, with the fruit maturing in September .
In New Jersey and Penn Sylvia, the flowering period is from mid-July
through early August . The leaves usually persist throughout the
winter [27,32]. The fruit may remain attached till the following spring
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
FIRE ECOLOGY OR ADAPTATIONS :
Wintergreen is not well-adapted to fire that removes litter and/or the
organic layer of soil. Rhizomes are restricted to the upper 0.8 to 1.2
inches (2-3 cm) of the organic layer, and wintergreen usually does not
survive if the organic layer is removed by fire . The rhizomes are
especially vulnerable to severe fire . If wintergreen survives, the
fire was probably of short duration or light enough that the fire
removed only aboveground vegetation and little litter .
Wintergreen rhizomes can tolerate brief exposure to high temperatures.
In one study its rhizomes were collected in spring, summer, and fall and
subjected to wet heat. Maximum shoot growth and number of stems
occurred after spring-collected rhizomes were placed in a water bath at
131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 deg C) for 5 minutes. Rhizomes died when
subjected to a 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 deg C) bath for 5 minutes
POSTFIRE REGENERATION STRATEGY :
Rhizomatous low woody plant, rhizome in organic mantle
Secondary colonizer - off-site seed
FIRE REGIMES :
Find fire regime information for the plant communities in
which this species may occur by entering the species name in the
FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".
DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF PLANT RESPONSE :
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
IMMEDIATE FIRE EFFECT ON PLANT :
Fire top-kills wintergreen . Surviving rhizomes may sprout
PLANT RESPONSE TO FIRE :
The response of wintergreen to fire and its role in fire related
succession seems to be highly variable.
In southwestern Nova Scotia, wintergreen survived a July fire. The
following summer density (stems/9 sq ft) and frequency (%) on covered
and uncovered quadrats were as follows :
Density 0.3 0
Frequency 20 0
In southeast Manitoba, five plots were burned in April. No prefire data
were given. Results from the end of August showed the average frequency
of wintergreen was 54 percent and the average cover was 3.8 percent.
Different levels of shade (0-100 %) had little or no effect .
Percent frequency of wintergreen was monitored for 2 years after a fall
(September) prescribed fire on a jack pine clearcut in northern
Michigan. Little change occurred, at least in the first year. Results
are given :
Unburned blocks Burned blocks
% frequency % frequency
1980 5.6 5.4
1981 4.6 0.8
Some research indicates that wintergreen is sensitive to fire. A spring
controlled fire was conducted on bracken fern (Pteridium
aquilinum)-grassland in Wisconsin. Sampling was done in July and August
of the year of the fire. The average frequency of wintergreen decreased
by 25.8 percent . In the Pine Barrens of northern Wisconsin,
wintergreen average frequency decreased from 28 to 14 percent 1 year
after a spring fire . In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, wintergreen
became less important with increasing fire frequencies. Fire
frequencies ranged from annual to 15-year intervals . Wintergreen
in this area exploit fire-generated gaps in litter through clonal
Other studies indicate that fire may favor wintergreen. In northwest
Minnesota, a severe May fire burned only the uppermost centimeters of
the forest floor. Wintergreen cover in unburned stands was 0 to 5
percent. After fire it was present in several associations and
increased through the sixth year following fire to a maximum cover of
6.2 percent. Biomass increased after fire, more in dry than moist
stands, but leveled off after the second year, perhaps because of the
low-bush growth form of wintergreen .
In a survey of the burned-over forest lands in southwestern Nova Scotia,
frequencies of wintergreen related to years since fire were as follows
postfire yr % frequency
The following Research Project Summaries provide information on prescribed
fire use and postfire response of plant community species, including wintergreen,
that was not available when this species review was originally
FIRE MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS :
SPECIES: Gaultheria procumbens
1. Abrams, Marc D.; Dickmann, Donald I. 1984. Floristic composition before
and after prescribed fire on a jack pine clear-cut site in northern
lower Michigan. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 14: 746-749.
2. Archambault, Louis; Barnes, Burton V.; Witter, John A. 1989. Ecological
species groups of oak ecosystems of southeastern Michigan. Forest
Science. 35(4): 1058-1074. 
3. Beaufait, W. R.; Brown, R. T. 1962. Phytogeography of a representative
outwash plain jack pine site. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science,
Arts & Letters. 47: 201-209. 
4. Braun, E. Lucy. 1950. Deciduous forests of eastern North America.
Philadelphia, PA: Blakiston Books. [pages unknown]. 
5. Braun, E. Lucy. 1961. The woody plants of Ohio. Columbus, OH: Ohio State
University Press. 362 p. 
6. Bernard, Stephen R.; Brown, Kenneth F. 1977. Distribution of mammals,
reptiles, and amphibians by BLM physiographic regions and A.W. Kuchler's
associations for the eleven western states. Tech. Note 301. Denver, CO:
U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. 169 p.
7. Cain, Stanley A. 1931. Ecological studies of the vegetation of the Great
Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Botanical Gazette. 91:
8. Coffman, Michael S.; Alyanak, Edward; Resovsky, Richard. 1980. Field
guide habitat classification system: For Upper Peninsula of Michigan and
northeast Wisconsin. [Place of publication unknown]: Cooperative
Research on Forest Soils. 112 p. 
9. Collins, Scott L.; Good, Ralph E. 1986. Canopy-ground layer
relationships of oak-pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
American Midland Naturalist. 117(2): 280-288. 
10. Dimock, Edward J., II; Johnston, William F.; Stein, William I. 1974.
Gaultheria L. wintergreen. In: Schopmeyer, C. S., ed. Seeds of woody
plants in the United States. Agriculture Handbook No. 450. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 422-426. 
11. Duncan, Wilbur H.; Duncan, Marion B. 1987. The Smithsonian guide to
seaside plants of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts from Louisiana to
Massachusetts, exclusive of lower peninsular Florida. Washington, DC:
Smithsonian Institution Press. 409 p. 
12. Eyre, F. H., ed. 1980. Forest cover types of the United States and
Canada. Washington, DC: Society of American Foresters. 148 p. 
13. Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. [Corrections
supplied by R. C. Rollins]. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press. 1632 p.
(Dudley, Theodore R., gen. ed.; Biosystematics, Floristic & Phylogeny
Series; vol. 2). 
14. Flinn, Marguerite A.; Pringle, Joan K. 1983. Heat tolerance of rhizomes
of several understory species. Canadian Journal of Botany. 61: 452-457.
15. Flinn, Marguerite A.; Wein, Ross W. 1977. Depth of underground plant
organs and theoretical survival during fire. Canadian Journal of Botany.
55: 2550-2554. 
16. Flinn, Marguerite Adele. 1980. Heat penetration and early postfire
regeneration of some understory species in the Acadian forest. Halifax,
NB: University of New Brunswick. 87 p. Thesis. 
17. Garrison, George A.; Bjugstad, Ardell J.; Duncan, Don A.; [and others].
1977. Vegetation and environmental features of forest and range
ecosystems. Agric. Handb. 475. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service. 68 p. 
18. Gleason, Henry A.; Cronquist, Arthur. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of
northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. 2nd ed. New York: New
York Botanical Garden. 910 p. 
19. Heimburger, Carl C. 1934. Forest-type studies in the Adirondack Region.
Memoir 165. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Agricultural Experiment
Station. 122 p. 
20. Kittredge, J., Jr. 1934. Evidence of the rate of forest succession on
Star Island, Minnesota. Ecology. 15(1): 24-35. 
21. Kotar, John; Kovach, Joseph A.; Locey, Craig T. 1988. Field guide to
forest habitat types of northern Wisconsin. Madison, WI: University of
Wisconsin, Department of Forestry; Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources. 217 p. 
22. Kuchler, A. W. 1964. Manual to accompany the map of potential vegetation
of the conterminous United States. Special Publication No. 36. New York:
American Geographical Society. 77 p. 
23. Kudish, Michael. 1992. Adirondack upland flora: an ecological
perspective. Saranac, NY: The Chauncy Press. 320 p. 
24. Kurmis, Vilis; Webb, Sara L.; Merriam, Lawrence C., Jr. 1986. Plant
communities of Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, U.S.A. Canadian
Journal of Botany. 64: 531-540. 
25. Martin, Alexander C.; Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L. 1951. American
wildlife and plants. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 500 p.
26. Martin, J. Lynton. 1955. Observations on the origin and early
development of a plant community following a forest fire. Forestry
Chronicle. 31: 154-161. 
27. Pivorunas, David J. 1987. Gaultheria procumbens. American Nurseryman.
166(9): 218. 
28. Radford, Albert E.; Ahles, Harry E.; Bell, C. Ritchie. 1968. Manual of
the vascular flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of
North Carolina Press. 1183 p. 
29. Raunkiaer, C. 1934. The life forms of plants and statistical plant
geography. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 632 p. 
30. Sidhu, S. S. 1973. Early effects of burning and logging in
pine-mixedwoods. II. Recovery in numbers of species and ground cover of
minor vegetation. Inf. Rep. PS-X-47. Chalk River, ON: Canadian Forestry
Service, Petawawa Forest Experiment Station. 23 p. 
31. Sperka, Marie. 1973. Growing wildflowers: A gardener's guide. New York:
Harper & Row. 277 p. 
32. Robinette, Sadie L. 1974. Checkerberry wintergreen (Gaultheria
procembens L. In: Gill, John D.; Healy, William M., compiler (also
revised). Shrubs and vinesfor northeastern wildlife. Gen. Tech. Rep.
NE-9. Upper Darby, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 20-22. 
33. Ross, S. Rachel. 1978. The effects of prescribed burning on ground cover
vegetation of white pine and mixed hardwood forests in southeastern New
Hampshire. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire. 151 p. Thesis.
34. Stickney, Peter F. 1989. Seral origin of species originating in northern
Rocky Mountain forests. Unpublished draft on file at: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Fire
Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT; RWU 4403 files. 7 p. 
35. Trimble, George R., Jr.; Patric, James H.; Gill, John D.; [and others].
1974. Some options for managing forest land in the central Appalachians.
Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-12. Upper Darby, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture,
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36. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service. 1982.
National list of scientific plant names. Vol. 1. List of plant names.
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37. Van Dersal, William R. 1938. Native woody plants of the United States,
their erosion-control and wildlife values. Washington, DC: U.S.
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38. Vogl, R. J. 1964. The effects of fire on the vegetational composition of
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40. Weber, M. G. 1991. Aspen management options using fire or cutting.
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43. Bray, William L. 1920. The history of forest development on an undrained
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44. Buell, Murray F.; Cantlon, John E. 1953. Effects of prescribed burning
on ground cover in the New Jersey pine region. Ecology. 34: 520-528.
45. Chou, Y. L. 1952. Floral morphology of three species of Gaultheria.
Botanical Gazette. 114: 198-221. 
46. Hoefs, M. E. G.; Shay, Jennifer M. 1981. The effects of shade on shoot
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47. Hough, A. F. 1936. A climax forest community on East Tionesta Creek in
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48. Martin, J. Lynton. 1956. An ecological survey of burned-over forest land
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49. Martin, N. D. 1959. An anaylsis of forest succession in Algonquin Park,
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50. Matlack, G. R.; Good, R. E. 1989. Plant-scale pattern among herbs and
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51. Ohmann, Lewis F.; Grigal, David F. 1979. Early revegetation and nutrient
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52. Crow, T. R.; Mroz, G. D.; Gale, M. R. 1991. Regrowth and nutrient
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53. MacLean, David A.; Wein, Ross W. 1977. Changes in understory vegetation
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55. Mirick, Sally; Quinn, James A. 1981. Some observations on the
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56. Shirley, Hardy L. 1932. Light intensity in relation to plant growth in a
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