THERE is no soil so inhospitable, that it does not afford the means of sustenance and growth to some vegetable tenant. The most arid and penurious spots of earth not only give support to a variety of plants, but they are even selected by certain species, which make them their permanent residence, and thrive better in the midst of poverty and drought than they could in the most fertile and luxuriant situations. The Gaultheria procumbens is one of those hardy and abstemious plants, which are better satisfied with the clear air of the mountains, than with a deep or mellow soil. It is found growing in large beds under the shade of shrubs and trees upon elevated tracts of ground, or upon the sand and gravel of the driest forests. Its bright evergreen leaves seem adapted for ready absorption and slow perspiration, so that it derives from the dews and rain, what the earth fails to supply it.
The Gaultheria procumbens is remarkable for the different periods of producing its flowers and fruit. It is found in blossom not only in the early part of spring, but in the last weeks of summer, and the fruit is found ripe at corresponding periods. Whether this appearance is the product of different shoots, or whether the same stems blossom twice in a year, I am unable to say. I have, however, met with beds of the Gaultheria in full flower in August and September, quite as frequently as in May. I have also seen the fruit in the market at various periods of the summer, fall, and spring.
The plant takes its vulgar names from the fruit, and is denominated in different parts of the United States, Partridge berry, Chequer berry, Box berry, &c. Its domestic use has also given it the name of Mountain tea.
The genus Gaultheria is beautifully singular and distinct in its character, derived from the form of its fruit. The calyx is five cleft, calyculated, or bibracteate at base. Corolla ovate. Capsule five celled, invested with the baccated calyx.
The species procumbens has a prostrate stem with ascending branches. Leaves in a terminal tuft, obovate with a few ciliate serratures. Flowers axillary.
Class Decandria, order Monogynia, Natural orders Bicornes Linn. Ericae Juss.
The stem, or as it might be called root of this plant is horizontal, woody, often a quarter of an inch in thickness. The branches are ascending, but a few inches high, round and somewhat downy. Leaves scattered, near the extremities of the branches, evergreen, coriaceous, shining, oval or obovate, acute at both ends, revolute at the edge, and furnished with a few small serratures, each terminating in a bristle. Flowers axillary, drooping, on round downy stalks. Outer calyx of two concave, heart shaped leafets, which may with perhaps more propriety be called bractes. Inner calyx monophyllous, white, cleft into five roundish subacute segments. Corolla white, urceolate, five angled, contracted at the mouth, the border divided into five short, reflexed segments, Filaments white, hairy, bent in a semicircular manner to accommodate themselves to the cavity between the corolla and germ. Anthers oblong, orange coloured, ending in two double horns, bursting outwardly, for their whole length above the filaments, and not opening by pores as in Pyrola. Pollen white. Germ roundish, depressed, five angled, resting on a reddish, ten toothed, glandular ring. Style erect, straight. Stigma simple, moist. The fruit is a small, five celled capsule, invested with the calyx, which becomes large, round, and fleshy, having the appearance of a bright scarlet berry.
If the aroma or odour and also the taste of plants were susceptible of description in as definite language as their proportions and form, the sensible qualities of many vegetables might afford new grounds for generalizing and combining them together. The aromatic flavour of the Partridge berry, which cannot easily be mistaken by those who have once tasted it, may be recognised in a variety of other plants, whose botanical habits are very dissimilar. It exists very exactly in some of the other species of the same genus, particularly in Gaultheria hispidula; also in Spiraea ulmaria and the root of Spiraea lobata. It is particularly distinct in the bark of the Sweet birch, Betula lenta, one of our most useful and interesting trees.
This taste and odour reside in a volatile oil, which is easily separated by distillation. The essential oil of Gaultheria, which is often kept in our druggists' shops, is of a pale or greenish white colour and perfectly transparent. It is one of the heaviest of the volatile oils, and sinks rapidly in water if a sufficient quantity be added to overcome the repulsion of two heterogeneous fluids. Its taste is aromatic, sweet and highly pungent.
The oil appears to contain the chief medicinal virtue of the plant, since I know of no case in which the leaves, deprived of their aroma, have been employed for any purpose. They are nevertheless considerably astringent, and exhibit the usual evidences of this property when combined with preparations of iron.
The berries, or berry-like calyces, have a pulpy but rather dry consistence, and a strong flavour of the plant. They are esteemed by some persons, but are hardly palatable enough to be considered esculent. In the colder seasons they afford food to the partridges and some other wild animals.
The leaves, the essence and the oil of this plant are kept for use in the apothecaries' shops. An infusion of the leaves has been used to communicate an agreeable flavour to tea, also as a substitute for that article by people in the country. Some physicians have prescribed it medicinally as an emmenagogue, with success in cases attended with debility. The oil, though somewhat less pungent than those of peppermint and origanum, is employed for the same purposes. It shares with them the property of diminishing the sensibility of the nerve exposed by a carious tooth, when repeatedly applied. The essence, consisting of the volatile oil dissolved in alcohol or proof spirit, is antispasmodic and diaphoretic, and may be applied in all cases where warm or cordial stimulants are indicated. A tincture, formed by digesting the leaves in spirit, possesses the astringency as well as warmth of the plant, and has been usefully employed in diarrhoea.
A respectable physician of Boston informs me, that he has in various instances found the infusion of this plant very effectual in promoting the mammary secretion, when deficient; and even in restoring that important function after it had been for some time suspended. Whether the medicine has any specific influence of this sort, independent of the general state of the patient's health, I am not prepared to say.
Gaultheria procumbens, Linn. Sp. pl.
Michaux, Flor. i. p. 249.
Pursh, i. 283.
Nuttall, Gen. i. 263.
Andrews, Bot. Repository, t. 116.
Willd. Arb. 123.
Vitis Idaea Canadensis Pyrolae folio, Tournefort, Inst. 608.
Anonyma pedunculis arcuatis, Colden, Noveb. 98.
Kalm, Amoenitates Academicae, iii. 14.
Bart. Coll. i. 19.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.